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Binge Drinking and Back to School

Posted Sep 17 2009 10:11pm

School doesn’t start until next Tuesday, and we still have a weekend to go, but the binge drinking has already begun. The local paper reported that 11 alcohol-related cases had been treated at an Emergency Room near campus, one a 17-year-old with a blood alcohol level of .38. This is definitely a life-threatening level BAC, and this young lady is very lucky to be alive.

Part of the momentum of college binge drinking seems to be the “everybody’s doing it” mentality, which in fact, is not true.  According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, 49% of 18-20 year-olds do not drink at all. Seventy-two percent of American adults do not drink (46 percent) or drink less than one alcoholic beverage per week (26 percent–this would include Mr. F and me). Each month, only 23 percent of American adults consume more than 5 drinks (men) or 4 drinks (women) at one sitting, the standard definition of a binge (although they consume a whopping 76 percent of all alcohol sold in the US). Seven percent binge 5 or more times per month. So the bottom line is that a minority of Americans do the vast majority of the drinking.

The Vast Majority of Americans Don't Drink Very Much

The Vast Majority of Americans Don' t Drink Very Much

What is truly sad is that alcohol advertising (in excess of $4 billion per year) drowns out the cautionary messages. In a previous post, I talked about diffusion tensor imaging results that showed that teenage binge drinking had adverse effects on the development of white matter (connections) in the brain. We only get one shot at growing a brain–what you have in your early 20s is all you’re ever going to get. Do it wrong, and you live with the results for the next 60 or so years. Most of my students have never seen the recommendations about alcohol from the American Cancer Society –for many cancers, abstention from alcohol use is the best course of prevention. Nor do we talk much about the obvious caloric contributions of binge drinking to obesity. It’s so very sad to see young people walking around with obviously alcohol-related bellies.

This doesn’t even begin to count the carnage from drunk driving. Mr. F and I, frequent walkers that we are, would NEVER consider walking the main street near our house late at night on weekends. It is the rare Monday when we don’t see sign poles knocked down, tire tracks on the sidewalk and into the bushes by the middle school, bus benches and trash cans totaled, and even a crunch into the apartment units across the street (none of which, by the way, ever appears in the local paper).

So what to do? The Justice Department makes the following suggestions:

  1. Make alcohol more expensive.  Right now, cheap beer doesn’t cost much more than a soda. Even quality wine is much more affordable than when I was in college. Because 77 percent of the population buys little if any alcohol, they wouldn’t feel increased prices as a burden. What higher costs might do is decrease affordability for the bingeing 23 percent.
  2. Restrict alcohol outlets.  Studies have shown that the higher the density of places selling booze, the worse the problem. In our little college/tourist town, alcohol is available everywhere.
  3. Strengthen and enforce minimum purchase age laws.  Recently, college presidents lobbied for lowering the drinking age to 18. Although this might take them off the legal hook, it is inconsistent with data suggesting that the brain is not mature until the early 20s, and the decision-making parts mature last.
  4. Curb social availability.  My students tell me that you can always find a party in SLO with booze, whether you know the people or not.  Again, raising the cost might solve this problem.
  5. Control advertising. This worked with tobacco, and it would likely work with booze. The problem is the people paying that $4 billion to advertise–they’re not going to give up without a fight. Look at how Big Booze went after General Motors for donating to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Who could be “for” drunk driving?

I’d like to add my own thoughts to the list:

  1. Parents–start inspecting what you expect. Somebody is paying for all of these kegs. Somebody is renting the houses where the parties occur. Please don’t complain to us about textbook and tuition costs when your son/daughter is spending tons of money on booze.
  2. Students–we are in a different economy and it’s a good idea to prepare for that. I haven’t read anybody who thinks we’ll go back to where we were 2 years ago. Today’s students are going to graduate into a highly competitive environment in which employers can be very picky. Drinking students need to recognize that while they’re boozing, somebody (remember, 49 percent of 18-20 year olds do not drink at all) is making himself/herself into a better person by studying, learning a skill, forming a meaningful relationship, doing a kindness for another person, etc. You can’t catch up for all of this lost time, and you can’t reverse the brain damage.

Last Spring, 60 percent of my students reported having barfed after drinking using anonymous i<clicker input. Barfing usually occurs when BAC is at least .12 to .15.  This leads me to believe that there is some truth to the “buzz” on Cal Poly–that you can get a degree without impacting your social life. Our drinking statistics seem to be higher than the norm.  Hopefully, we can reverse this trend by encouraging our students to think healthfully and competitively.  Maybe we need to ask more of them in the classroom. It’s a tough world out there, and the prize rarely goes to the person who can drink the most.

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