Unrecognized Problem about Binge Drinking (It’s Serious)

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. But 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. That is, 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 drinking, there is no mention of what constitutes “a drink.” True, most researchers define the term in reports. But this crucial fact does not appear to make it into the mainstream media.

This “definition of a drink” is crucial fact 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 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.

unrecognized problem about binge drinking1. 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.”


unrecognized problem about binge drinkingThe 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.

Another Problem

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. Learn more at Social Norms Marketing is Effective.

There is no good research that scare-tactics lead permanent changes in high-risk behaviors. Yet accurate facts about the true behaviors for a given group is effective. That’s because misperceptions of the real behaviors are corrected. Thus people don’t have to “keep up” to the exaggerated imagined behaviors.


I close with two simple suggestions. First, we need to rethink the utility of the term “binge drinking” when referring to 4+/5+ drinks per outing. How about the term “high-risk drinking” instead?

Second, the primacy of moderate drinking by the majority of college students needs to be stressed. I venture to guess that many will be surprised with the result.

The Author

Dr. Robert Chapman is head of the Alcohol and Other Drugs Program at La Salle U.

Unrecognized Problem about Binge Drinking

    • Reprinted by permission of the author. Edited and headings added.