ABSTRACT

Do college students really drink a lot and if so, why? There is anecdotal evidence of high-end college-age drinking stretching back to the start of the university system (Strauss and Bacon, 1953; Engs, 1977; Giles, 1991; Banks, 1997; Nuwer, 1999; Engs, 2002; Vicary and Karshin, 2002; Dowdall, 2009; Syrett, 2009) but little research on campus intakes and consequences until the 1950s when Strauss and Bacon (1953) published Drinking in College, a survey of 27 colleges conducted between 1949 and 1951. In the 1970s and 1980s concern about alcohol intake in general prompted increased examination of student drinking, and Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD), Boost Alcohol Consciousness Concerning the Health of University Students (BACCHUS) and the Inter-Association Task Force on Alcohol and Other Substances Issues (IATF) were established. These organizations problematized student drinking by focusing on negative consequences rather than reasons for intake. The discourse of negativity was cemented in the 1990s with the publication of reports from the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, a survey of over 140 schools and many thousands of students (Wechsler et al., 1994, 1995, 1998; Wechsler and Wuethrich, 2002). The Harvard study examined correlates of binge drinking behaviors after defining a binge as four drinks in one sitting for a woman and five for a man (Wechsler and Austin, 1998). The investigators found that negative outcomes such as missing class, driving drunk, doing something later regretted and having unplanned (and unprotected) sex were much higher in prevalence among frequent binge drinkers – who were defined as the roughly 20 percent of students who reported being drunk three or more times per month (Wechsler et al., 2000; Dowdall, 2009: 48–53; Scott-Sheldon et al., 2010). More importantly, reporting a cluster of five or more of these problems was 20–25 times more prevalent among frequent bingers than among other students (Dowdall, 2009: 50). In other words, regular and heavy episodic drinking was linked to serious consequences that affected student functioning and academic outcomes. While this could be said to be something of a ‘no-duh’ finding, the Harvard Study provided important and solid evidence of increased academic and personal problems linked to high-end drinking. The Harvard Study also demonstrated that significant numbers of college students were binge drinking on a regular basis. Because of the widespread media coverage of the study, the phrase ‘binge drinking’ became synonymous with college intake. Unfortunately, the definition for ‘binge’ used by the study differed from the popular understanding of the term and implied that students were becoming profoundly intoxicated on a regular basis. The traditional meaning of the phrase connotes a several-days-long period of drunkenness, often involving loss of memory, episodic disappearances and addiction (Chrzan, 2010). The Harvard Study defined a binge as five drinks per sitting for a male and four for a woman (Wechsler et al, 1994; Wechsler and Austin, 1998; NIAAA, 2004), an amount that may or may not cause intoxication depending on the length of time drinking, type of drink, and stomach contents of the drinker. Regardless, this metric morphed into the definitive definition for binge drinking without losing the earlier connotation of being out of control drunk; it was partly this collision of meanings that propelled popular interest and public health fears about college drinking. These fears were cemented with the publication of an article that proclaimed that 1400 college students were dying annually due to alcohol intake, mostly from car crashes (Hingson et al, 2002). Three years later, the same authors asserted that the number had increased to 1700 deaths per year (Hingson et al., 2005). However, these were not actual measurements but estimates based on a scaling up of a small sample. This was considerably more deaths than had previously been measured: while one report quantified 620 alcohol-related deaths of college students over a four-year period (Dowdall, 2009: 53), Hingson et al. estimated far more, many occurring during summer breaks and off campus. The larger number was eagerly picked up by national media and has since been reported as fact by the popular press and in some academic texts (DeSantis, 2007: 168–169; Neighbors et al., 2005; Smith, 2011: 112). The reality that the articles were an estimated statistics test has been forgotten in the general panic of being told that the US is losing upwards of 1700 college students annually.