Concerted effort needed to stop binge drinking


The first step in overcoming a problem is acknowledging that one exists.

Binge drinking pandemic is so severe a generation is in peril. Premature death related to alcohol has risen to approximately 1,400 a year.

These grim statistics are part of a longitudinal study confronting binge drinking on college campuses (Harvard School of Public Health).

Excessive drinking on the part of college students was very obvious to me last month when visiting a former student who is now attending a major university. Our car turned down onto Fraternity Row where the music blared from house after house. Smashed beer cans were strewn across the street as collegians flirted with one another from opened windows.

We passed a boy unselfconsciously urinating on the pavement several steps from the front door to the frat house. It was Thursday night, the big one on this campus, and everyone seemed ripe for a weekend of booze and parties.

The scene I am describing took place at one of the Princeton Review's "Top Party Schools," though what was observed at this college is not unique. Disproportionate drinking and drugs are a well-documented problem on many American college campuses. Richard Yost, director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse unit of the American Medical Society, sounds the alarm, "High-risk drinking is consuming four to five drinks in a row. The drinking goes hand in hand with what is called a 'party lifestyle' characterized by frequent deliberate intoxication 'or binge drinking.'"

After my tour of Fraternity Row, I deposited my former student at her high-rise dorm whose halls had a dank morning-after smell; long anonymous hallways were unadorned adding to the overall depressing environment.

Several weeks earlier, a first-year student, drunk and vomiting, had committed suicide by jumping from the eighth-floor window.

Hearing about this tragedy brought to mind a sad e-mail I received from the parent of a former student. Her daughter is a freshman at a small private college. "A lot of the girls are drunk all the time and take coke. One suicide the other day and hospital visits from overdoses happen every now and then."

Such catastrophically wasted lives. These thoughts were still in my mind the next morning when I was taken on a tour of the surrounding campus, which was well kept and serene, a study in contrast. I thought with cynicism this veneer was perhaps for the flow of next year's potential recruits who took carefully structured tours every day.

Not only those legally old enough are affected. Underage drinkers have always found ways to get around, and digital technology has made it easier to create false identification cards necessary to enter clubs while still under the legal drinking age.

Ambitious young entrepreneurs have designed Internet Web sites providing up-to-the-minute information about clubs that might turn the other cheek, admitting minors, aiding those in search of a party. "Smashed Story of a Drunken Girlhood" is the self-indulgent title of a book describing one girl's lost childhood. Twenty-four-year-old Koren Zailckas is bright, beautiful and privileged. She began to drink heavily in junior high school and managed to escape her parents' scrutiny.

In an effort to stay thin, her excessive drinking often was accompanied by bulimic self-induced vomiting. Koren's consumption of alcohol grew while attending a major university. Her freshman year began a four-year-long alcohol-induced haze. Binge drinking began two weeks into the first year, intensifying in a sorority where the sisters swilled their days away.

She writes, "By the time I am initiated into Zeta as a full-fledged member, excess is my main objective for any night. When I drink, I am to exceed a state of being just drunk and enter instead into a state of consciousness is more like annihilation of brain waves."

Deadened, Koren tried with little success to stop drinking after being date raped and belatedly came to the realization the only people she knew were drinking as heavily as she was. "Dying to Drink" by Dr. Henry Wechsler and Bernice Wuethrich is a seminal source of information about drinking problems on college campuses. The authors estimate the total cost of this problem is higher than realized, reaching $53 billion a year when traffic accidents are included.

The text does not only articulate the horror stories, some of which have been described in this book, the authors report on courses of action that can be taken to minimize binge drinking and alcoholism on campuses.