Campus Drinking: What's Really Going On

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

Most alcohol research uses potentially inaccurate self-reports to gather data on consumption, but a highly accurate technique is now being used to determine the actual extent of alcohol use and abuse.

Very important ground-breaking research on drinking among college students, drivers, recreational boaters, and others is being done by researchers at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.

Instead of relying on self-reports of consumption, Dr. Robert Foss and his colleagues are now measuring actual blood alcohol concentration (BAC) with breathalysers, which are highly accurate.

This technique "compares apples with apples." And even if self-reports were completely accurate, the results from using them would still be unclear. That's because, for example, if a small woman consumes five drinks in five hours on an empty stomach, she will feel the effects more than if consumed by a large man who eats throughout the period. And if she consumes all of her five drinks in the first hour and he consumes one per hour over the period, the results will be even more dramatic.

The University of North Carolina research technique eliminates all those serious problems. For Dr. Foss and his colleagues, BAC is the bottom line and it doesn't lie.

The researchers have found that, contrary to popular misperceptions, the large majority of college students tested appear to be light or very moderate drinkers. Breathalyser tests were given to about 1,800 University of North Carolina students as they returned home at night. Seventy-two percent, almost three out of four, had no alcohol in their bloodstreams. Even on the traditional party nights of Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, 66% returned home with absolutely no alcohol in their blood.

Two of every three had no BAC. Yet all we seem to hear about is how many students are "binge" drinking, generally abusing alcohol, and dying from alcohol poisoning.

But Dr. Foss wasn't surprised by the results. Other breathalyser studies he and his colleagues have done with drivers and recreational boaters showed similar results.....much less drinking than is generally believed. He observes that we have substantial misperceptions in this country about the extent of alcohol use and abuse.

So instead of being unaware of the problem, as many argue, we actually tend to see it as much worse than it really is. To a large degree, this gross distortion of perception results from the widespread use of the misleading term "binge drinking" to describe the behavior of students and other young people.

Traditionally and medically, binge refers to a period of continuous intoxication lasting for at least a couple of days, but now it's being used by some to refer to a person consuming as few as five drinks (four for a woman) over the course of a period as long as an entire day and evening. The person doesn't have to be intoxicated... doesn't even have to have enough alcohol in their system to feel its effects. In short, a "binger" can be completely sober! Moderate, responsible drinkers are counted as bingers, thus inflating the numbers. Now that's a completely misleading use of the term, and its a large part of the public's distorted view of alcohol consumption.

Research by the University of North Carolina team has clearly made a major contribution in cutting through all the hype and distortion to provide an accurate picture of what's happening -- and what's not happening -- on college campuses and elsewhere.

We certainly can't develop effective policies and programs to reduce abuse if they're based on faulty information and beliefs. More researchers should follow the lead of Dr. Foss and his colleagues.

 

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