College Drinking Reality: What’s Really Going On?

Most alcohol research uses potentially inaccurate self-reports to gather data on drinking. But a much more accurate way is now being used to learn the extent of alcohol use and abuse. That is, college drinking reality.

college drinking realityResearchers at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center are doing ground-breaking studies.

The usual way is self-reports. But the UNC team is measuring blood alcohol concentration (BAC) with breath testers.

Compares Apples with Apples

This technique compares “apples with apples.” Even if self-reports were completely accurate, the results would still be unclear. That’s because of differences between people, drinking rates, and many other factors.

For instance, women who have the same amount of alcohol under identical conditions as men will have higher BACs. That’s right. Alcohol is Sexist. For people of different sexes, sizes, and others, the effects can be great.

The UNC research technique eliminates all those serious problems. For the researchers, BAC is the bottom line. It helps them learn college drinking reality.


The researchers gave breath tests to about 1,800 UNC students as they returned home at night. They found that the large majority of students tested appear to be light or very moderate drinkers. Of course, this is contrary to popular belief.

Seventy-two percent had no alcohol in their blood. That’s almost three out of four. The traditional party times are Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Yet even on these nights 66% returned  home with no alcohol in their blood.

Correcting Misperceptions

Two of every three had no BAC. Yet we constantly hear about is how many students are “binge drinking.” About how many are abusing alcohol. And about how many are dying from doing so.

But they weren’t surprised by the results. Other breath test studies they’v done with drivers and boaters showed similar results. That is, much less drinking than is generally believed. Clearly, we have substantial misperceptions in this country about the extent of alcohol use and abuse.

Many say we are unaware of the problem. But we actually tend to see it as much worse than it really is. To a large degree, this gross misperception results from the widespread use of the misleading term “binge drinking.”

Binge Drinking

Traditionally and medically, binge refers to a period of continuous intoxication lasting for at least a couple of days. But now many use it to refer to having as few as five drinks (four for a woman). And that can be over the course of an entire day and evening.

The person doesn’t have to be intoxicated. Doesn’t even have to have enough alcohol to feel its effects. In short, a “binger” can be completely sober! Moderate, responsible drinkers are counted as bingers. This inflates the numbers. That’s a very misleading use of the term. And it’s a large part of the public’s distorted view of drinking.

Major Advance

Research by the UNC team has clearly made a major contribution. It cuts through all the hype and distortion. It provides an accurate view of what’s happening — and what’s not happening — on college campuses. In short, on college drinking reality.

But the UNC team has also shown other researchers the importance of replacing self-reports with actual BAC readings. And doesn’t simply apply to college campuses. We know that people tend to under-report their drinking. So this approach is also useful in studies elsewhere.

We certainly can’t develop effective policies to reduce abuse if they’re based on faulty facts and beliefs. More researchers should follow the lead of the UNC team.

College Drinking Reality