Are Abstaining Students a Key to Reducing College Binge-Drinking?

About 40% of U.S. college students engage in binge-drinking, over half a million college students a year are physically and/or sexually assaulted by an intoxicated assailant, and alcohol and other drug problems are the most common reason that someone starting college this fall will not have a degree in hand four years later. A high-profile task force called for action against campus binge-drinking almost a decade ago, spurring a range of new prevention, treatment, harm reduction and educational initiatives. Yet the number of campus deaths from drinking has gone up every year since and the rate of binge drinking hasn’t budged.

Stanford is among a number of universities that are working within a new national learning collaborative focused on campus binge-drinking, which has lead me to review a science and practice literature I hadn’t explored until now (College drinking is its own area of study with little connection to my primary research area of addiction). One of the striking things to me as a relative outsider is that many research and intervention efforts concerning college drinking focus exclusively on students who drink. Drinkers are of course one of the groups that shape a university’s culture regarding alcohol, but students who don’t drink also surely play a role.

Making campuses more comfortable places for students who choose not to drink would be good for those students as well for those students who drink in a hazardous fashion. Spurred by a letter from a Stanford student to Dear Abby, I wrote about this possibility today for Stanford School of Medicine’s SCOPE blog.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

11 thoughts on “Are Abstaining Students a Key to Reducing College Binge-Drinking?”

  1. I hate to sound like a cynic but people who binge drink are not good for the gene pool. Ingesting too much of a poison produces death. Let’s encourage them to smoke pot!

  2. That study (at p.5) defines binge drinking as five or more drinks in a row for men and four for women. I don’t know what “in a row” means. That definition seems awfully overinclusive if we’re talking about people drinking themselves into incapacitation, which is what I believe the term “binge drinking” is meant to evoke. I’m surprised the numbers are so low given that expansive definition.

  3. And it looks like they are still using the same definition of binge drinking they did 10 years ago, which does not take timing into account at all. Five drinks in an hour and you’re definitely drinking heavily–5 drinks over the course of a long evening/night, with food, and you can stay completely sober the whole time. (One drink per hour, while eating, is not heavy drinking by most measures.)

  4. So the approach is to de-stigmatize abstaining, so that binge drinkers don’t binge so much?
    And also to prevent otherwise abstaining folks from going overboard just because everybody else does.

    Seems reasonable.

  5. Just my two cents, but drunk people are usually not that fun to be around for non-drunks. So how are you going to get the abstainers to stick around long enough to make the drunks feel self-conscious (which I’m not sure would really even work)?

    I think what you’ve got here are two separate groups of people.

    Plus, other than for religious reasons, or people who already know they are alcoholics, or for people who have to drive home afterwards, I don’t see any virtue in abstinence. What is so great about it? Moderation is what we should be teaching.

  6. My suggestion for addressing binge drinking would be to videotape people while they are bingeing and make them watch (while sober) what they look like. I long ago concluded that the feelings of power and confidence you get while abusing one or another substance was inversely proportional to the number of IQ points being used during the night. That is, the better you feel while drunk the stupider you are likely to be behaving. Lectures don’t do it.

  7. NCG: what is valuable is giving people who want to not drink–whether as a general principle, or just at a particular time–a way to socialize that doesn’t involve drinking. When I was in undergrad I was heavily involved in our campus’s ballroom dance program. (Which was, incidentally, such venue–we had parties every week, often drawing over 100 people on a campus of a few thousand, which were completely dry). We periodically tried to get one of the official campus life organizations–the ones in charge of promoting student socialization and subsidizing weekend parties–to coorganize one of these events with us. Their response was, essentially, that our events weren’t real parties because there was no alcohol. And that’s just an awful belief to have floating around, especially from official administration approved groups.

  8. How to stop binge-drinking in one simple step: Reduce the Drinking Age to 18.

    If you are old enough to get drafted, be sentenced to death (16 was old enough in my benighted state until fairly recently), join the army, sign a contract, you are old enough to drink responsibly. Period. If you are allowed to drink sociably in public, while paying for drinks one at a time and perhaps running out of money before you get totally sh*t-faced, there is no need to binge at a private party or in the privacy of your own house/apartment/dorm room. It’s really not that difficult a concept. Will there binge-drinking still? Of course, but it will not be the default behavior.

  9. Jadagul: I certainly agree that non-drinkers shouldn’t be stigmatized, and I hope I would have better manners than to ask anyone why they didn’t want a drink. And there’s nothing wrong with “dry” social events either. Maybe your dance group should have complained to the administration! Dancing is a wonderful hobby, and it’s exercise too. It can also teach people manners, which are totally underrated these days.

    I just don’t see an abstinent lifestyle as some kind of abstract value, unless the person in question has some particular reason for it. It’s no way to go through life (hard drugs aside…)

    The thing is, this post is about trying to get binge drinkers to either quit, or drink less. The going theory is that they can be shamed into it, sort of, if the people around them drink less, apparently. (Though by definition, don’t they already?) Or, maybe the less-drinkers are supposed to … smirk at them or something? I’m not clear on the precise mechanism.

    Barbara’s idea might work, but it’s a little Big Brothery. Also, aren’t the youngsters nowadays supposed to be impervious to embarrassment, what with putting everything on Facebook?

    My guess is that the reason most of those kids die is that they drove. Maybe working on that angle would make more sense.

  10. “And it looks like they are still using the same definition of binge drinking they did 10 years ago, which does not take timing into account at all. Five drinks in an hour and you’re definitely drinking heavily–5 drinks over the course of a long evening/night, with food, and you can stay completely sober the whole time. (One drink per hour, while eating, is not heavy drinking by most measures.)”

    That’s the definition they’re using, but according to experts I’ve talked to, changing the level to seven or eight drinks wouldn’t change the rate. That is, students are not stopping at four or five drinks, nor are they enjoying four or five drinks with food in the course of a long evening. Rather, they’re drinking a lot quickly for the express purpose of becoming drunk.

    BTW, as a female, I wouldn’t stay completely sober after five drinks, even over an evening with food. And I’m not a short little person.

  11. NCG: the problem is that the people I’m complaining about _were_ the administration. No, seriously. The group that said our events didn’t count because they were dry had a dean on the board, or something. This is the group in charge of spending the student activity fees.

    And my point, more or less, is that if the only “acceptable” venue for socialization is alcohol-centric, it’s hard to go out and have a fun time without drinking even if you want to. And in that sort of environment, drinking and binge drinking get hard to separate–very few people go to a party centered around cheap kegs of beer and have one or two drinks for the taste.

    Which is what’s always struck me as odd by the definition of binge drinking as five drinks–I usually stay at two or three, but I’m a lightweight and don’t like being drunk. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone (with straightforward access to alcohol) start out the night with the position “I want to drink for the sake of drinking” and end the night with fewer than five.

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