Dr. Robert Chapman explains below a widely unrecognized problem about binge drinking. And it’s one that has serious effects.
There is great controversy among professionals about the term “binge drinking.” This term is widely used to address the issue of high-risk drinking by college students. However, it’s far from the “accepted term” of those who work in alcohol and drug prevention.
Heavy drinking is a serious problem. No one denies that. But many of us have great problems with a definition of “binge drinking” that uses a specific number of drinks. Specifically, to 4+ drinks for women and 5+ drinks for men.
I have no argument with referring to 4+/5+ drinks as high-risk, perhaps even abusive drinking. But defining “bingeing” as 4+ drinks in one sitting for women and 5+ drinks for men is inaccurate at best. It may even contribute to the very problem that those reporting “binge drinking” statistics intend to confront.
What’s a Drink?
In many media reports of college student alcohol consumption, there is no mention of what constitutes “a drink.” True, most researchers define the term in publications. However, this crucial information does not appear to make it into the mainstream media.
This “definition of a drink” is crucial information for students to have. They need it to make sense of any attempt to quantify “binge” or high-risk drinking. For example, students tend to relate how much they drank by counting the “number” of beverages consumed. Not to 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. That’s true even if he has paid attention to the advice to have 4 or fewer drinks.
To tie “bingeing” to a number of drinks is dangerous for two reasons.
1. First, some women will have dangerously high blood alcohol levels consumption after only 2 or 3 “standard” drinks. (A standard drink equals 12 oz of beer, 5 oz of wine, and 1.5 oz of spirits). That’s because of their size, higher estrogen levels while on the pill, etc. A similar problem is likely for some males who have fewer than five drinks.
Is a 240-pound linebacker going to have a very high BAC if he drinks 5 beers in an evening? And herein lies the segue to point #2.
2. Second, students are likely to dismiss the 4+/5+ drinks definition of “binge drinking” as unrealistic. Perhaps worse, they may well dismiss everything that health educators and others say about the dangers of “binge drinking.”
The irony is that many points made by those who employ “binge drinking” are true. That is, high-risk drinkers do earn lower grades, miss more classes, and are involved in more cases of violence. Students tend to reject the 4+/5+ drinks definition of “binge drinking” as bogus. Therefore, they may also reject the negative effects of such drinking.
When a minority of students are “binge drinkers,” then a majority are not! The media says that binge drinking is rampant on campuses. Yet it is easy to “hear” that “all” college students are “drunken fools.” You know this is not so. Researchers know this is not so. But the media nonetheless convey this message, either by design or neglect.
Discover more at A Proven Way to Reduce Alcohol Abuse.
There is little if any good research that scare-tactics lead permanent changes in individual high-risk behaviors. Alternatively, conveying accurate information about the true behavioral norms for a given group is effective. That’s because misperceptions of the social norm are corrected. Thus people don’t have to “keep up” to the exaggerated imagined norms.
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. He authored The Unrecognized Problem about Binge Drinking. Edited and headings added.
Resources: Unrecognized Problem about Binge Drinking
Kilmer, J., & Logan, D. Applying harm reduction strategies on college campuses. In C. Correia et al., (Eds.) College Student Alcohol Abuse. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2012. Pp. 146-165.
Seaman, B. Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You. Hoboken: Wiley, 2010.