The Persistent Culture of College Drinking

on Monday, 22 March 2010. Posted in Health and Well-Being

St. Patrick's Day is my least favorite day of the year to teach. St. Patrick's Day at Notre Dame is like a spring version of Halloween. This year, it happened to coincide with the first day of sunny warm weather after what has felt like a really brutal winter. The whole day felt like a major holiday. There was even free food all afternoon. I also suspect there was a lot of drinking going on

I first became aware of the issue of campus binge drinking when I read the terrifying 2005 novel by[2] Tom Wolfe, "I Am Charlotte Simmons". As with most of Wolfe's books, it is anthropological exploration disguised as fiction. The book was based on years of  research on elite college campuses. The documentation of the 'student-athlete, hook-up and drinking culture was an eye-opener.

Academic research on the culture of college drinking is not hard to find: [3]"It is far more pervasive and destructive than many think" was the conclusion of an extensive 3-year investigation by the Task Force on College Drinking, commissioned by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism(NIAAA).

The problem begins in high school, with thirty percent of 12th graders, reporting heavy episodic drinking. (Slightly more report having "been drunk", and almost three-quarters report drinking in the past year.)

By the time they get to college, alcohol consumption is considered a necessary "rite of passage. Traditions and beliefs handed down through generations of college drinkers serve to reinforce students- expectations that alcohol is a necessary component of social


  • Approximately 70 percent of college students consumed some alcohol in the past month.
  • 31 percent reported symptoms associated with alcohol abuse (e.g., drinking in hazardous situations and alcohol-related school problems).
  • 6 percent reported 3 or more symptoms of alcohol dependence (e.g., drinking more or longer than initially planned and experiencing increased tolerance to alcohol's effects).

The[4] immediate consequences of alcohol abuse in college are troubling, and include death, injury, assault, unsafe sex, suicide, health problems, and more. Immediate consequences also include negative impact on academic performance. About 25 percent of college students report academic consequences of their drinking including missing class, falling behind, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall.

The short-term impact extends even to [5]'second-hand effects' on other students, and the campus community. "Students who do not drink or engage in low-risk drinking are affected by the problem drinking of their fellow students. These problems can range from disrupted [6]sleep or study to caring for an intoxicated roommate to even being humiliated or assaulted."

There are also longer term consequences. While most high-risk college student drinkers reduce their consumption of alcohol after leaving college, others may continue frequent, excessive drinking, leading to alcoholism or medical problems associated with chronic alcohol abuse. [7]A 2008 CDC Report, "Health United States with a Special Report on Young Adults 18-29," notes "The period between ages 18 and 29 sets the foundation for future health behaviors and health status, and may be the time in life when health education and preventive care may arguably have their greatest impact". This report provides troubling details that suggest that 'foundation' may not be all that solid.

Last February, Lesley Stahl reported on the problem for CBS 60 Minutes. The student interviews reveal a high degree of peer pressure to drink. Drinking is equated with having a good time, and not drinking means you are nowhere socially.

[EMBED] [8]Watch CBS News Videos Online The problem appears to be peculiar to college students. The NYT reported last June that information collected over a 27-year period by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, found "binge drinking by men between 18 and 20 years old who did not attend college dropped by more than 30 percent over that period but remained statistically unchanged among similar-aged men on campus. There was no difference between college and noncollege women in the 18- to 20-year age group but a big upsurge in binge drinking by older college women." No one seems to know why this problem has been particularly difficult to address among college students. Millennial have proven remarkably prepared to make good choices in other areas of their lives, but appear to resist efforts to break the culture of college drinking.

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