Alcohol Abuse "Guesstimates" Aren't Statistics

by Iain Murray

If every night is party night on college campuses, a new study suggests more than just a hangover awaits students who drink. Over 1,400 students are killed annually because of their alcohol use, charge researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health. Their report, published in the Journal of Alcohol Studies and promoted by the federal National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, also claims that over 600,000 students a year are assaulted by other students who have been drinking. Additionally, over 70,000 are the victims of sex assaults or date rapes in similar circumstances. These are worrying figures, indeed. But they do not stand up to close scrutiny.

The researchers were attempting to estimate the number of health problems, from minor injury to death, on college campuses each year that were related to alcohol. To estimate the number of deaths, they based their calculations on the total number of traffic fatalities for the age group 18-24 that involved alcohol. In doing so, they inflated the numbers, because they included crashes where the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of the driver was less - sometimes considerably so - than the legal definition for drunk driving. Thus we have no way of knowing whether alcohol was in fact the cause of those crashes where the driver's BAC was positive, but below the standard for drunkenness. A driver may have had one drink or less and still be perfectly fit to drive when he was involved in the fatal accident, but the researchers have attributed his or her death to alcohol alone.

Moreover, the methodology used to establish how many of the total crashes involved college students assumes too much. The study claims that as college students make up 31 percent of the age group nationwide, they must also account for 31 percent of alcohol-related deaths in that age group. There is, however, no evidence for assuming that students are involved in traffic accidents at the same rate as other people their age. Many students after all do not own cars, or they live on campuses where walking is the norm. The researchers provide survey evidence that a higher proportion of students drank and drove at least once in the last year than others of their age group. But this says nothing about how often the respondents did so, which is the thing we need to know.

For non-traffic deaths, the story is similar. The researchers took 31 percent of the overall number of deaths for this age group, again with no basis for this assumption, and applied a further calculation to assess how many were alcohol-related. This calculation was based on a survey of accidental deaths from 1975 to 1995 that found that 38 percent of people who died in accidents had a positive blood alcohol content. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it assumes that any blood alcohol level at all was a contributory factor in the accident. Second, the data cover a broad span of time over which per capita alcohol consumption dropped considerably. It is highly likely that more people died in accidents related to alcohol in 1975 than did so in the late nineties.

The figures for assaults are demonstrably inaccurate, because they conflict with what we know about crimes in general. Standard data used in this field tell us that there were about 735,000 alcohol-related assaults on 18-24 year olds nationwide. To suggest that 86 percent of these occurred on campuses is clearly implausible, because we know from other standard data that violent crime victimization correlates closely with less education. A similar argument applies to the issue of sex assaults and date rapes. The researchers would have us believe that some 65 percent of these assaults on the age group nationwide occur on campuses and are exclusively related to alcohol.

This is a common problem with studies such as this one. Academic surveys that ask people general questions about their experiences with crime often produce higher figures than the more tightly controlled government surveys. Those are refined over time to tighten definitions and reduce problematic gray areas. One-off surveys like the one the researchers relied on in this case do not have that luxury, and so the numbers they produce are often inflated to a greater or lesser degree. Surveys also suffer from confusion over what they really discovered. The survey in question asked respondents whether they had been "assaulted, hit or pushed" by someone who had been drinking. In the press release, this was reduced to "assaulted or hit" and when Dr Mark Goldman, co-chair of the Task Force on College Drinking, appeared on The Early Show on April 9, he mentioned only "half a million assaults."

The numbers produced by the Boston University team, therefore, cannot be relied on. They use questionable assumptions, overly broad definitions and data that conflict with more reliable and established figures. There is no doubt that alcohol abuse is a serious problem that impacts significantly on many lives each year. These figures, however, do nothing to prove that the young people who form the nation's future are in severe peril from the demon drink.


Iain Murray is Director of Research at the Statistical Assessment Sevice, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization didicated to the accurate use of scientific and social research in public policy debate. Mr. Murray, a graduate of Oxford and the University of London, specializes in the analysis of crime statistics. Reprinted with permission from

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