Cheap Beer Leads to College Binges
By Adam Marcus, HealthDay Reporter
FRIDAY, Sept. 12 (HealthDayNews) -- To many college students, the two most blessed words in the English language are "cheap beer."
And when alcohol flows like water and can cost less, students drink more heavily, says a new study. The researchers put particular blame on marketing campaigns promoting large quantities of beer -- kegs, "party balls," cheap pitchers and beers-by-the-dozen that are frequently advertised in liquor stores and bars in college towns.
"It shouldn't be surprising, and yet we've all been acting as if this isn't a factor in the binge drinking of college students," says study leader Henry Weschler.
Most college drinking initiatives aim to change drinking behavior and educate students about the perils of alcoholism, says Weschler, director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. These haven't been especially successful at reducing the problem.
No wonder, he says, when beer is cheaper than soda or bottled water, and getting drunk costs less than going to a movie. Doing away with high-volume specials, or at the very least making them more expensive, could take a significant bite out of excessive drinking on campus -- for the obvious reason that while college students may have deep thirsts they have shallow pockets.
"Changing the alcohol environment surrounding colleges is necessary in order to change the levels of drinking in college students," Weschler says.
Previous work by Weschler's group found 44 percent of college students "binge" drink -- consuming five or more drinks at a single sitting (four drinks for women) within the past two weeks. Almost a quarter do so more than once a week. Binge drinking has been linked to poor grades, physical and sexual aggression, and destructive behavior.
Underage drinkers consume nearly half of all alcohol downed on college campuses, Weschler says.
In the latest study, appearing in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the researchers compared campus drinking levels with the cost of beer in town. They looked at the drinking behavior of more than 10,000 students attending 118 colleges.
The cheaper the beer and the larger the volume available, the more students reported drinking. When retail outlets sold discounted beer, the average number of drinks students consumed rose. The same was true when stores sold 24-pack, 36-pack, kegs and party balls, a form of mini-keg holding 2.5 cases.
In college towns whose bars and restaurants had low average beer prices, binge drinking rates were higher. Binge drinking also spiked with weekend promotions -- events sponsored by nearly three in four watering holes.
"It's not how many bars there are, the problems are in these bars that have these drink specials," says Don Zeigler, deputy director of the A Matter of Degree Program, a drinking awareness initiative based at the American Medical Association's Chicago headquarters.
Cutting back on the specials reduces alcohol-related incidents, says Zeigler. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, for example, a recent voluntary ban on drink specials led to fewer alcohol-related arrests and acts of violence, he says.
"The [alcohol] industry usually says it's the problem of the drinkers, that they should know when to say when, that it's up to parents to teach their children about alcohol," Zeigler says. "This study is saying that there are environmental policies that work; that what happens in communities can have a tremendous impact on the drinking and health of our kids."
Earlier this week, a government panel called for more severe measures to cut underage drinking, and one of those measures included significantly higher taxes.
In a second study, also reported in the prevention journal, Weschler and his colleagues found college students in states with more restrictive laws governing underage drinking and drunken driving were less likely to drive after consuming alcohol.
The study found that 30 percent of college students said they'd driven after taking at least one drink, and 10 percent said they'd driven after having more than five. One in four admitted riding with a driver who was drunk or stoned on another substance.
The Beer Institute, which represents the beer industry, could not be reached for comment.
Learn about the dangers of heavy drinking from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. For more on teen alcohol abuse, try the National Institutes of Health or the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth.
SOURCES: Henry Weschler, Ph.D., director, College Alcohol Studies, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston; Don Zeigler, Ph.D., deputy director, A Matter of Degree Program, Chicago; October 2003 American Journal of Preventive Medicine
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