College students may be holding off marijuana, cocaine and tobacco, but the tradition of binge drinking hasn't lost its appeal, according to a new study from the Harvard School of Public health (SPH).
The study of first-year students in Massachusetts colleges, to be released tomorrow at a conference of college educators at the School, found that while many students wouldn't feel comfortable drinking alone, they weren't constrained from drinking in a crowd, said study director Henry Wechsler, a lecturer on social pyschology.
"The majority say it's okay to get high or drunk at a party or with friends. They have definite rules about what conditions it's okay to drink and what conditions it's not okay," he said.
"We've gotten the message that it's dangerous to drink and drive. College students have gotten the message that there's something wrong about drinking alone but the norms haven't changed yet about heavy drinking in groups and with friends and that's something that's going to take more time," he said.
Wechsler surveyed 1669 first-year students at 14 colleges in Massachusetts and found that about one-third of the men and a quarter of the women drank more than once a week.
More than half of the men and one-third of the women had five drinks in a row at least once in the two weeks prior to the study.
Wechsler found that almost all students who drink frequently are binge drinkers.
Ninety-two percent of the men and 82 percent of the women who drank more than once a week had five or more drinks in a row at least once in a two-week period.
Comparing the results with a similar study he conducted in 1977, Wechsler found that the number of heavy drinkers remained the same. But the number of light drinkers was sharply down, he said.
Heavy drinkers, defined as people who had five or more drinks at a time more than once a week remained constant, about 30 percent of the men and 12 percent of the women, the study said.
But while about 15 percent of drinkers were classified as light drinkers in 1977, only 1 percent were in that category in the new study, Wechsler said. Abstainers increased from 3 percent to 12 percent.
Wechsler said the Massachusetts rates are comparable with national findings.
Meanwhile, smoking had dropped to about half of what it was in 1977, to 12 percent in men and 19 percent in women, and marijuana and cocaine use decreased considerably.
The study found two major reasons behind the binge drinking. Students were continuing patterns already set in high school and, for other students, college provided a social atmosphere for drinking.
Schools Tightening Policies
The study comes as many universities, including Harvard, are tightening their student alcohol policies in the face of increasingly strict federal and local legislation. The new laws, which have taken effect this year, tie federal education funding to the school's enforcement of state and local drinking laws.
In response, Harvard has taken several steps, including a ban on all alcohol in Yard dormitoires and heavy restrictions on the delivery of kegs to upperclass houses.