Among college students, keg parties and drinking to excess have – wrongly – been considered an integral part of the college experience. In recent years, many U.S. colleges and universities have made efforts to educate students on the dangers of binge drinking, and change behavior.
Those efforts may be having an impact.
After years of increasing rates of binge drinking, alcohol-impaired driving, and alcohol-related mortality among young adults ages 18 to 24, the numbers are finally beginning to decline among college students in that age group, according to a study in the July issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. However, those same numbers are trending upward among young adults of the same age who are not in college.
The same study found that alcohol-related overdose hospitalizations and overdose deaths have increased among 18- to 24-year-olds as a whole.
Research for the study began in 1998, when the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) organized a task force to focus on the effects of college drinking and to identify possible solutions, according to study author and task force member Ralph Hingson, of the NIAAA’s Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research.
The task force published its first report in 2002. For the latest update, researchers studied data through 2014. They found that in every year from 1999 to 2005, binge drinking and related problems increased among college students ages 18 to 24. However, those same numbers declined across the board from 2005 to 2014.
The percentage of college students who reported binge drinking (five or more drinks on an occasion at least once in the previous 30 days) rose from 42 percent to 45 percent from 1999 to 2005 but then declined to 37 percent by 2014. For those not in college, binge drinking rose from 36 percent to 40 percent between 1999 and 2014.
While the rates of binge drinking have declined among college students, extreme binge drinking — drinking at two or more times the binge threshold — is a still a major public health issue in the U.S. In a recent study, Hingson found that tens of millions of Americans drink at dangerously high levels.
Those in college who reported driving under the influence of alcohol rose from 27 percent to 28 percent from 1999 and 2005, but this fell to 17 percent by 2014. For those not in college, driving under the influence declined from 20 percent to 16 percent between 1999 and 2014.
“A number of factors may have contributed to the recent reduction in binge drinking and its related problems among college students,” says Hingson. He believes an increased emphasis by college administrators on adopting interventions aimed at reducing problematic drinking may have played a role.
In more recent years, Hingson says, studies have shown that interventions can work not only among individuals, but also at the family level through educational programming at the colleges and in the community, as well as through alcohol policy adoption and implementation. Studies also have shown that interventions can reduce alcohol-related problems not only for college students who drink but also for other college students — which can lessen the secondhand effects of excessive drinking.
“This expansion of the literature may have prompted more colleges to adopt a wider array of interventions,” Hingson says.
Two other possible factors include the economic recession of 2008 — less disposable income means less money to spend on alcohol — and the passage in every state of the .08 percent legal limit for blood alcohol concentration in drivers by 2005.
Among 18- to 24-year-olds, increases in overdose hospitalizations and deaths involving alcohol — alone and in combination with other drugs — and the rising rates of binge drinking in non-college students of the same age are worrisome, says Hingson, and these are areas that he and his researchers will continue to study.
He notes that the increase in alcohol overdoses, particularly among 21- to 24-year-olds, may relate to the rise in extreme binge drinking, which was found to be particularly common among people who used other drugs, based on his previous research.
“Among young adults who aren’t in college, there aren’t the same organizational supports to implement interventions, and that may be contributing to why binge drinking is increasing in that group,” he says.
The negative effects of excessive drinking to excess are as serious as they are widespread. The following annual statistics apply to college students between the ages of 18 to 24, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:
— About 1,825 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries
— More than 690,000 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking
— More than 97,000 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape
— About 599,000 receive unintentional injuries while under the influence of alcohol
— About 25 percent report academic consequences of their drinking, including missing class, falling behind, doing poorly on exams or papers and receiving lower grades overall
— More than 150,000 develop an alcohol-related health problem.