Scope of the Alcohol Problem among College Students

Anyone working to prevent alcohol abuse on campus can attest that alcohol is the drug of choice for college students.

Approximately 44 percent of college students are classified as heavy drinkers by the Harvard School of Public Health's College Alcohol Study (CAS). According to these researchers, a male high-risk drinker has had five or more drinks in row at least once in the past two weeks; for women this measure is four or more drinks.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) uses a different measure, defining 'heavy episodic drinking' as a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08. To reach this level, a typical adult male or female would consume five or four drinks, respectively, in a period of two hours.

Consequences of Alcohol Abuse on Campus

The negative effects of alcohol abuse are devastating. According to the the NIAAA 2002 report A Call to Action: Changing the Culture of Drinking at U.S. Colleges, each year as a result of alcohol abuse

  • 1,700 college students die from alcohol-related causes, with 1,300 of these deaths due to drinking and driving
  • 600,000 students suffer nonfatal injuries
  • nearly 500,000 students have unprotected sex
  • more than 100,000 students are too intoxicated to know whether they consented to sexual intercourse
  • 1.2-1.5 percent of students attempt suicide because of alcohol or other drug use
  • more than 150,000 students develop a health problem related to alcohol
  • 11 percent of students damage property
  • 2.8 million students drive while under the influence of alcohol

Follow-up data from the 2007 NIAAA report What Colleges Need to Know Now: An Update on College Drinking Research show that negative consequences of alcohol abuse remain prevalent on campus. For instance, research from the report shows that among the college-age population of 18- 24-year-olds

  • heavy episodic drinking increased from 1998 to 2001
  • driving while intoxicated increased from 2.3 million in 1998 to 2.8 million in 2001
  • the number of alcohol-related deaths increased 6 percent from 1998 to 2001

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse on Students

In addition to putting students at risk while on campus, the effects of alcohol abuse among college students can lead to long-term health and safety problems. CAS data show that college students who first become intoxicated before the age of 19 are more likely to

  • become alcohol dependent
  • become frequent heavy drinkers
  • drive after drinking
  • ride with a driver who was drinking or drunk
  • sustain injuries after drinking alcohol that required medical attention

Effective Prevention

An environmental management approach to prevention can be effective at changing the overall environment in which students make decisions about alcohol abuse. Campus leaders working together with community stakeholders can implement comprehensive approaches to reduce the scope of the alcohol problem among college students.

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