Binge drinking has now become a common phenomenon among college students in the United States and a 14-year study of heavy alcohol consumption has linked the conditions in the college environment as being the cause.
Factors such as easy access to alcohol, low prices and special promotions, weak control policies and lax enforcement are what encourage binge drinking, the review stated.
Researchers with the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study (CAS) had discovered that the college environment was the main contributor to binge drinking, after making a landmark study that surveyed more than 50,000 students at 120 colleges from 1993 to 2001.
During its 14-year existence, the CAS focused attention on widespread binge drinking at American colleges and the ensuing serious health and social consequences to drinkers, fellow students and neighbors.
CAS's findings and implications were examined once again and according to a new review, the researchers concluded that the heavy drinking behavior of students was more common in college environments that have a strong drinking culture, few alcohol control policies on campus or in the surrounding community, weak enforcement of existing policies, and alcohol made easily accessible through low prices, heavy marketing and special promotions.
CAS Director Henry Wechsler, lecturer on society, human development and health at Harvard School of Public Health and Assistant Director Toben Nelson, assistant professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota, conducted the review.
"Our study drew attention to the heavy drinking of students, most of whom were not considered alcoholics or in need of traditional treatment, but nevertheless experienced problems as a result of their drinking," Wechsler said.
The CAS found that students who binge drink as five or more drinks in a row for males, and four or more drinks for females, on a single occasion in the past two weeks, are more likely to experience a wide range of problems, including academic difficulties, social conflict, risky sexual behavior, risky driving behavior, vandalism, injury and alcohol overdose.
The study also discovered that binge drinkers were more likely to engage in other risk behaviors such as tobacco and illicit drug use. Students who binge drink frequently were most likely to experience these problems.
Besides the harm that they can cause themselves, CAS also pointed out the problems that drinkers can cause for others on and around campus.
The "secondhand" effects of alcohol use, similar to the concept of secondhand smoke, helped people understand that student drinking is harmful to the larger campus community.
These problems include drinking-related behavior that is disruptive to studying and sleep, vandalism, and physical and sexual assaults.
"The five/four drink binge measure is a good indicator of who will experience alcohol-related problems, and more importantly, captures most students who actually experience problems, something measures with higher drink thresholds fail to do," Wechsler said.
"Binge drinking among college students varies widely from college to college," Toben Nelson said.
"At some colleges almost no students binge drink, while at others nearly four in every five students do. Interestingly, we found that the levels of binge drinking, and the problems related to it, remain very stable at the same colleges over time.
This finding occurred despite surveying a new group of students in each of the CAS surveys.
"That suggests there is something about certain college environments that promote binge drinking," added Nelson.
On the other hand, colleges that restricted use by banning alcohol on campus or offering substance-free housing options had fewer drinkers, and as a result lower binge drinking levels.
The state and local government can also play a role in cutting back binge drinking, as was found out about students who attended colleges in states with stronger alcohol control policies were less likely to be binge drinkers.
The other factor contributing to binge drinking is when students have an easy access to alcohol.
"A 'wet' college environment, one that has many stores where students can buy alcohol, and may be influenced to do so by heavy marketing, low prices and special promotions, creates the conditions for heavy drinking," Wechsler said.
The review appears in the July 2008 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.