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Binge Drinking Persists on College Campuses, But Alcohol Abstinence Increasing, Says Harvard Study;
Congress Waives Privacy in Alcohol and Drug Cases


September-October 1998

Fifty-two percent of college students who drank alcohol in 1997 intended to get drunk, according to a study published in the Journal of American College Health. The survey was conducted by Henry Wechsler of the Harvard School of Public Health (Henry Wechsler, Ph.D., et al., "Changes in Binge Drinking and Related Problems Among American College Students Between 1993 and 1997," Journal of American College Health, September 1998, vol. 47, pp. 57- 68; Leo Reisberg, "More Students Abstaining From Alcohol, Study Finds, But More Also Drinking Heavily," Chronicle of Higher Education, September 11, 1998; Carey Goldberg, "Little Drop in College Binge Drinking," New York Times, September 11, 1998, p. A14; Cindy Rodríguez, "Binge drinking on campus rising," Boston Globe, September 11, 1998, p. A1; Knight Ridder, "Glass Warfare: Campus Divide on Drinking Grows," Washington Post, September 13, 1998, p. A6; Elizabeth Mehren, "It's Still the Old College Cry: Drink!" Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), September 17, 1998, p. A5).

The Wechsler survey of 14,521 students at 116 colleges in 39 states is a follow-up on a similar analysis of 15,103 students in 1993. The 1993 survey showed that about 39% of respondents who drank said they did so intending to get drunk. In what Wechsler termed "a glimmer of hope," the 1997 survey showed that more students are abstaining from alcohol consumption -- 19% of students reported that they had not drunk alcohol in a year, an increase from 15.6% in the 1993 survey.

In both surveys, fraternity and sorority members were the heaviest consumers of alcohol. About 80% qualified as "binge" drinkers, defined as men who drank at least five drinks in a row or women who drank at least four in a row on a single occasion within the two weeks prior to answering the survey. Overall, 42.7% of students surveyed in 1997 were considered "binge" drinkers, compared to 44.1% in 1993.

Non-binge drinkers in both surveys reported serious problems related to their "binge" drinking peers, including sexual harassment, accidents and injuries, bathrooms covered in vomit, and loud outbursts during sleeping hours.

The survey showed that schools in the Northeast and Midwest tended to produce more drinking. According to the researchers, students at historically black and women's colleges, and commuter schools with dormitories, tended to drink less.

On September 10 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., the Inter-Association Task Force on Campus Alcohol Issues, a coalition of organizations collaborating on substance abuse prevention efforts within the higher education community, released recommendations for college officials, parents, and students to curb alcohol abuse. Key recommendations included parents talking with their children about the dangers of "competitive drinking," the legal consequences of having false identification, promoting more "alcohol-free" activities on the campuses, and peer-education programs. The group also released guidelines to limit how beer, wine, and liquor companies promote their products on college campuses.

One way to address the problem is letting students know through advertising campaigns that their estimates of drinking by their peers are often inflated, said Kate Ward-Gaus, a University of Pennsylvania health educator. Northern Illinois University (NIU) has implemented such a program. The number of students consuming at least five drinks at a party has dropped from 45% to 25%, according to a campus survey at NIU.

"What we are saying is, if everybody thinks `Animal House" is the norm, they behave that way," said Michael Haines, coordinator of NIU's Health Enhancement Services. He said the Harvard studies may exacerbate the problem by informing students that it is normal to drink a lot at college. "Our mission is to cause our target population to pay attention to the good normative news," he said.

In Boston, Mayor Thomas M. Menino announced on September 19 an advertising campaign, called "Party Smart," against college drinking that attacks the image of the student binge drinker. The campaign includes advertisements that show glassy-eyed youths wearing clothes stained with vomit, urine, and drool. Others show students passed out next to trash cans or clinging to a toilet bowl. The ads are being funded by the local district attorney's office and private organizations such as Bank Boston and local bars (Dan Scannell, "Ad blitz aims to blitz binge drinking," Boston Sunday Globe, September 20, 1998, p. B6).


Binge drinking by college students was highlighted last year by two highly publicized alcohol-related deaths at major universities -- the deaths of 20-year-old Benjamin Wynne at Louisiana State University (LSU) and freshman Scott Krueger at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The LSU chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity agreed to pay $22,600 in a plea bargain on August 31. The fraternity pleaded no contest to 86 counts of purchasing alcohol for underage drinkers. Wynne, who was celebrating his acceptance to the fraternity, was found dead the morning after a night of drinking at the fraternity house and at a party sponsored by the fraternity at a bar. His blood-alcohol level was almost six times the level considered legal proof of intoxication (Associated Press, "Fraternity to Pay Fine In Pledge's Alcohol Death," New York Times, September 1, 1998, p. A17; "Fraternity Plea," USA Today, September 1, 1998, p. 3A; Associated Press, "Louisiana fraternity pays in drinking death of pledge," Boston Globe, September 1, 1998, p. A10).

On September 17, prosecutors charged the MIT chapter of Phi Gamma Delta -- the organization, not its members -- with manslaughter in the death of Krueger, who drank himself to death at a party at the fraternity he was pledging. The fraternity has also been charged with hazing (Jack Sullivan and Beverly Ford, "MIT frat faces indictment in drinking death," Boston Herald, September 17, 1998, p. A1; "Karen Russo, "Fraternity is charged in the drinking death of MIT student," Philadelphia Inquirer, September 18, 1998, p. A24; "MIT fraternity charged in student's drinking death," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, September 18, 1998, p. 4A; Editorial, "A sobering lesson for fraternities," Boston Globe, September 19, 1998, p. A18).


On September 29, the U.S. Senate sent to the president legislation that would allow colleges to notify parents when students younger than twenty-one commit an alcohol or drug violation (P.L. 105-244). The measure was an amendment to the higher education reauthorization bill (H.R. 6). The former law prohibited colleges from disclosing information about students 18 and older (Leo Reisberg, "Senate Resolution Calls for Colleges to Wage War on Binge Drinking," Chronicle of Higher Education, September 30, 1998; Ann O'Hanlon, "Bill Lets Colleges Tell Parents of Drinking, Drugs," Seattle Times, October 1, 1998).

The measure was sparked by alcohol related deaths in Virginia during the fall 1997 semester. "Parents need to be called, and the kids really don't want the parents called," said Jeff Levy, who son, Jonathon, died in an alcohol-related car accident. "Kids see it as a game. Yet the school doesn't do anything about it." Jonathon attended Radford University in Virginia (Mary Beth Marklein, "Hard lessons learned on campus life," USA Today, August 26, 1998, p. 4D).

"It's a ridiculous amendment," said David Banisar, policy director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Even drug and alcohol violations shouldn't override an adult's right to privacy. An adult student, for better or worse, is still an adult. . .This amendment would basically be turning the university into a baby-sitter for them."

Henry Wechsler, Ph.D., Harvard School of Public Health - Tel: (617) 432-1137, Fax: (617) 432-3755, E-mail: <>, Web: <>.

Inter Association Task Force - guidelines & members located online at: <>.

Michael Haines - Health Enhancement Services, Northern Illinois University, University Health Services, Dekalb, IL 60115-2879, Tel: (815) 753-9745, Fax: (815) 753-9599.

"Party Smart" Ad Campaign - Nancy Lo, Consumer Affairs and Licensing Office, City of Boston, 1 Boston City Hall Plaza, Boston, MA 02201, Tel: (617) 635-4000.