Binge Drinking: A Serious Unrecognized Problem

by Robert Chapman, Ph.D.

Unbeknownst to the average viewer of the popular media, there is significant controversy regarding the term "binge drinking." This term, so prominently employed to address the issue of high-risk drinking by contemporary collegians, is far from the "accepted term" of those who work in the field of alcohol and other drug prevention. Heavy drinking is a serious problem. No one denies that. But many of my colleagues and I have great difficulty with a definition of "binge drinking" that is tied to a specific number of drinks, and in particular to 4+ drinks for women and 5+ drinks for men.

Allow me to preface my remarks by stating that I have no argument with referring to 4+/5+ drinks as high-risk, perhaps even abusive drinking. To quantify "bingeing", however, as 4+ drinks in one sitting for women and 5+ drinks for men is inaccurate at best, and may even contribute to the very problem that those reporting "binge drinking" statistics intend to confront.

In many media reports of college student alcohol consumption, there is no mention of what constitutes "a drink." True, the Harvard School of Public Health defines the term in its publications, but this crucial information does not appear to make it into the mainstream media that have covered this issue with great zeal since its initial 1994 publication in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This "definition of a drink" is crucial information for students to have if they are to make sense of any attempt to quantify "binge" or high-risk drinking. For example, most students tend to relate how much they drank by counting the "number" of beverages consumed rather than the amount of alcohol contained in each. In so doing, the male student who has "4 pints of beer" will have nonetheless inadvertently entered the high-risk zone even if he has paid attention to the admonishment to have 4 or fewer drinks.

To tie "bingeing" to a number of drinks is dangerous for two readily apparent reasons, at least to those of us who work in this field. First, some women will have dangerously high blood alcohol levels--because of their size, their elevated estrogen levels while on the pill, or because of their rapid consumption after only 2 or 3 "standard" drinks (a standard drink equals 10 oz of beer, 5 oz of wine, and 1.5 oz of 80 proof spirits). The same problem is likely for some males who have fewer than five drinks. By the same token, I am not sure that a 240-pound linebacker on the college football team is going to have a very high blood alcohol level if he drinks 5 beers in an evening--and herein lies the segue to point #2.

Second, students who hear all the hoopla about binge drinking by college students and then are confronted with the 4+/5+ drinks definition are likely not only to dismiss the "binge drinking is a problem" message as unrealistic, but they may well dismiss everything that health educators, administrators, parents, and other concerned individuals have to say about the consequences of high-risk drinking associated with a 4+/5+ drinks pattern. The irony is that there is significant evidence to suggest that the very points being made by those who employ "binge drinking" are true, that is, students who engage in high-risk drinking do earn lower grades, miss more classes, and are involved in more cases of violence, and vandalism. Unfortunately, because students have tuned out what they consider to be an absurd yardstick for measuring consumption, they may also tune out the opportunity to recognize the negative correlation between amount consumed and grades or the positive correlation between amount consumed and alcohol problems.

A final criticism of the term "binge drinking" as defined above, even if we assume it is here to stay, is that it still only addresses the tip of the "collegiate drinking iceberg." If 44.1 percent of students are "binge drinkers," then 55.9 percent are not!

When the media tell us that binge drinking is rampant on our campuses, it does not take much to "hear" that "all" college students are "drunken fools." You know this is not so. I know this is not so. The Harvard research team knows this is not so. But the media nonetheless convey this message, either by design or neglect. While there is little if any good research to suggest that scare-tactic approaches to community education translate into permanent changes in individual high-risk behavior, there is mounting evidence to suggest that programming designed to convey accurate information about the true behavioral norm for a given population does translate into individual behavior change as the misperceptions of the social norm are corrected.

I close with two simple suggestions. First, we need to rethink the utility of the term "binge drinking" particularly when referring to 4+/5+ drinks per outing. How about the term "high-risk drinking" as an alternative? Second, the primacy of low-risk drinking by the majority of college students needs to be accentuated when discussing collegiate drinking. I venture to guess that many will be surprised with the result.

Dr. Robert Chapman is the coordinator of the Alcohol and Other Drugs Program at La Salle University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is adjunct professor of counseling and coordinator of the addictions counseling concentration in the M.A. program in Clinical Counseling Psychology. His website is www.lasalle.edu/~chapman.

References

  • Baer, J. S., et al. Biases in the perceptions of drinking norms among college students. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 1991, 52(6), 580-586.
  • Barnett, L. A., et al. Changing perceptions of peer norms as a drinking reduction program for college students. Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, 1996, 41(2), 39-62.
  • Haines, M.A. A Social Norms Approach to Preventing Binge Drinking at Colleges and Universities. Newton, Massachusetts: Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, 1996. Visit www.edc.org/hec/pubs/socnorms.html, where this important document is posted.
  • Haines, M. , and Spear, S. F. Changing the perception of the norm: A strategy to decrease binge drinking among college students. Journal of American College Health, 1996, 45, 134-140.
  • Larimer, M. E., et al. College drinking and the greek system: Examining the role of perceived norms for high-risk behaviors. Journal of College Student Development, 1997, 38(6), 587-598.
  • Page, R. M., et al. Relationship of the estimation of binge drinking among college students and personal participation in binge drinking: Implications for health education and promotion. Journal of Health Education, 1999, 30(2), 99-103.
  • Perkins, H. W. College Student Misperceptions of Alcohol and Other Drug Norms among Peers: Exploring Causes, Consequences, and Implications for Prevention Programs, In: Designing Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention Programs in Higher Education: Bringing Theory Into Practice. Newton, Massachusetts: Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, 1997, pp. 177-206.
  • Perkins, H. W., et al. Misperceptions of norms for the frequency of alcohol and Other Drug Use on College Campuses. Journal of American College Health, 1999, 47(6), 253-258.
  • Perkins, H. W., and Wechsler, H. Variations in perceived college drinking norms and its impact on alcohol abuse: A nationwide study . Journal of Drug Issues, 1996, 26(4), 961-974.
  • Prentice, D. A., and Miller, D. T. Pluralistic ignorance and alcohol use on campus: Some consequences of misperceiving the social norm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1993, 64(2), 243-256.
  • Walsh, D. C., et al. Social marketing for public health. Health Affairs, 1993, 12(2), 104-119.