Binge Drinking & Problem Inflation

by Justin Leto

A few years ago some researchers at Harvard attempted to radically redefine binge drinking as, "5 or more drinks in a sitting." This directly conflicted with accepted medical and clinical definitions that describe binge drinking as "a self - destructive and unrestrained drinking bout lasting multiple days during which time the heavily intoxicated drinker 'drops out' by not working, ignoring responsibilities, squandering money, and engaging in other harmful behaviors." This radical new definition categorizes large numbers of people as binger - even those who may be completely sober are unfairly stigmatized! And it inflates binge drinking statistics beyond reason.

Despite the so-called Harvard definition being discredited and abandoned by most leading researchers, some college administrators and media outlets still continue to use the misleading term.

In 2000, a group of 21 higher education associations stated that the term "denotes very little and sends mixed messages." It has asked the media and others to stop using the term, calling its effect on college drinking "confusing and counterproductive."

It is counterproductive because the use of the misleading definition may have actually played a role in causing so-called "binge drinking" to increase. Sociologists know the phenomenon as "labeling." Because of some researchers inflating the problem, students believed heavy drinking was the norm. However, every study done on college drinking over the last 20 years disputes that claim, showing alcohol consumption on college campuses has continued to decline and recently reaching an all time low.

This type of sensationalism leads to a general mistrust of the statistics presented by government agencies and special interest groups.

Prohibitionist tactics surfaced in 1984 when MADD lobbied for the passage of the federal Minimum Drinking Age Act that forced every state to raise their drinking age to 21- the highest in the world. This came at a time when declaring war on substance abuse was the way to win elections. Only now it is the "War on Drugs" that is coming under fire for its enforcement abuses, mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders, racial profiling, and excessively high prison populations.

What few people probably know is that the government officially classifies alcohol as a "drug" - along with marijuana, heroin, and cocaine. Critics have since pointed out that trivializing drug use by labeling alcohol as a drug may very well lead to increased casual use of actual drugs.

Statistics suggest nearly 11 million young people drink underage nationwide. In an attempt to quell those numbers, officials have resorted to deception, scare tactics, and ambitious enforcement and sentencing measures that only exacerbate the problem.

Ads that use needles to equate alcohol consumption to intravenous drug use have been employed with captions declaring alcohol as a "poison." These marketing tactics began circulating amidst revelations that the anti-drug program, D.A.R.E., famous for its "Just Say No!" campaign, was finally admitting publicly that its methods were flawed and ineffective.

D.A.R.E. president and founder, Glenn Levant, stated that its mission is still "to provide children with the skills they need to never get involved with tobacco, with alcohol, with drugs."

The phrase "never get involved with...alcohol" didn't sit well with experts in the field who emphasize that moderate drinkers tend have better health and live longer than both abstainers and heavy drinkers. Moderate drinkers are significantly less likely to suffer from strokes, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, stress and depression. Moderate consumption of alcohol has also been found to increase cognition and slow memory loss caused by aging. So why should we promote lifelong abstinence at the expense of peoples' health and longevity?

The current war against alcohol ignores the fact that it is not alcohol but alcohol abuse that is the problem. It makes it difficult for young people to learn moderation while forcing them to learn immoderate drinking in environments that promote rapid, heavy, excessive consumption of alcohol. It is clearly part of the problem rather than the solution. Unfortunately our alcohol policies are influenced more by ideology and the belief promoted by special interest groups than only abstinence education and policies are acceptable. It is the taxpayers who bear the burden of supporting a "War on Alcohol" that costs billions of dollars, is demonstrably ineffective, and that resorts to problem inflation to justify its continuation.


Justin Leto is a student leader at the Pennsylvania State University, where is active in both university and community affairs.

References and Readings

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