December 20, 2004

Survey includes 17,821 students on 96 campuses Study identifies 'heavy and frequent' drinkers

by Paula M. Davenport

CARBONDALE, Ill. - - For the first time ever, a national poll of American college students identifies those whose alcohol consumption is most likely to result in gut-wrenching headlines, says a researcher at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

So-called "heavy and frequent" drinkers, these collegians drink more alcohol and drink more often than their peers, said lead researcher Cheryl A. Presley, executive director of the SIUC-based CORE Institute, which collected the largest-ever database on U.S. college students' drinking and drug use.

And perhaps not surprisingly, these hard-core drinkers are far more likely to experience a number of negative consequences, says Presley, whose poll is the first to detect the heaviest drinkers on campus.

A total of 17,821 students on 96 U.S. college campuses completed the random, confidential poll in spring 2003, Presley said.

Presley says results show heavy and frequent drinkers consume 19 drinks a week, compared to other students' four-drink average; and the heaviest drinkers booze it up five times in a seven-day period.

"That's nearly every night of the week," says Presley, who doubles as director of SIUC's Student Health Programs.

The heaviest boozers also admit they've gone binge drinking once in the last two weeks - - consuming five or more drinks in a sitting - - and drink on at least three more occasions each week.

Compared to other college students, they're three times more likely to:

  • Be caught driving under the influence.
  • Be injured or hurt.
  • Be the victim or victimizer of a sexual episode.
  • Cause property damage
  • Wonder if they might have a drinking or drug problem.

"I think we've really pinpointed who's in the news," says Presley.

Each year, she notes, alcohol is linked to the deaths of more than 1,400 college students and injuries to another 500,000.

Now that it's apparent who's most at risk, health experts may try more targeted approaches to help the biggest imbibers, she says.

"In all, 13 to 17 percent of college kids are heavy and frequent drinkers. That's a lot of kids on campuses across this country," says a concerned Presley. Survey results are now in the hands of officials in the U.S. Department of Education. And Presley expects a widely read public health journal to publish the information in upcoming months.

However, she worries that wellness and prevention programs will continue to fall on deaf ears until students take responsibility for their destructive behaviors.

Since 1989, the CORE Institute has polled some 2 millions college students on about 1,700 campuses, which represents about half of the universities and colleges in the United States.

"Sometimes I wonder if students see other students dying as a result of alcohol as a problem. That may be one of the big barriers that keeps this thing firmly entrenched," she adds.