Trivializing Binge Drinking

by David J. Hanson, Ph. D.

Internationally-recognized alcohol education experts, Drs. David Anderson and Gail Milgram, have expressed concern over "a most unfortunate term - 'binge drinking,' - used by otherwise responsible researchers instead of 'heavy use'." They explain that the term binge is counter productive in discussions of general collegiate drinking.

These experts emphasize that

In the context of college drinking, binge has been defined as the consumption of five drinks for males and four drinks for females during one drinking experience in the previous two-week time period. 1 It should be noted that size of drink, body weight of drinker, and length of time during drinking experience were not taken into consideration in this definition. Though four-to-five drinks are heavy consumption of alcohol, it is quite possible that the individual did not become intoxicated (one example would be if the drinking experience lasted eight to 10 hours).

They explain that

Unfortunately the use of the term "binge drinking," which is interpreted by many to be a drunken spree or unrestrained indulgence over a period of time, emotionalizes the issue of concern. It is important to consider using other terms such as heavy alcohol use or high-risk drinking to maintain perspective on the problem of drinking on campus. 2

Another group of leading alcohol researchers has pointed out that "There is little gained (and perhaps more lost) with college students when normative behavior (44%) is labeled, viewed, or treated as pathological or when the phenomenon of college student drinking is compared with alcohol-dependent persons who binge involuntarily." 3

Michael Haines of Northern Illinois University reports that his studies indicate that drinking problems, such as violent behavior, typically occur at much higher levels of consumption. "Science is buckling under to morality and funding," he says. 4

The Director of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, Dr. William DeJong, says that Henry Wechsler's use of the word binge is misleading. "He's taken a term that the public associates with an out-of-control, multiday bender" and misused it.

Dr. DeJong explains that "What that communicates to the public in a headline is that almost half of the students are out of control in their drinking. If you go on campus, most students will say that is nuts. And, of course, research clearly demonstrates that they are right." 5

Earlier, DeJong reported that inappropriate use of the term "binge" destroys credibility. In essence, students say "If you think my having five drinks over the course of a five-hour party is a 'binge,' then you don't know what you're talking about." 6

Scholars must be concerned with accuracy, which is fundamental to science. Therefore, the prestigious Journal of Studies on Alcohol accepted an article but only on the condition that the term binge drinking be changed to heavy episodic drinking, in spite of the authors' objections. 7 But neither logic nor attempts to enforce professional ethics has been able to eliminate the inappropriate use of this misleading term.

The New York Times has pointed out an important irony. Some researchers label college students who consume five (or as few as four) drinks on an occasion as bingers. The same students are advised by health educators to be responsible drinkers by pacing themselves at no more than one drink per hour. But since students often attend social events for five or more hours at a time, that consumption rate would label them as bingers. Thus careful students would be both responsible drinkers and bingers at the same time. 8

Now a coalition of 21 higher education associations has called for a stop to the inappropriate use of the term binge drinking in describing college drinking. The Inter-Association Task Force on Alcohol and Other Substance Abuse Issues says the use of the phrase should be reserved, as it historically has been, to refer to "a prolonged (usually two days or more) period of intoxication." The coalition emphasizes that the new catch-all definition of binge drinking is misleading at best. 9

Those who use the term to describe drinking that may not even be associated with intoxication trivialize the very serious nature of real binge drinking and divert attention from it. Therefore, they are part of the problem instead of the solution.

It's clearly time to stop misleading the public by using the term "binge drinking" inappropriately. To continue to do so is irresponsible and undesirable.


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