PRC Resources

College Drinking

Catastrophic Drinking Among College Students
Story of Discovery

Drinking among college students has been recognized as a serious problem on college campuses in the US. Research has shown that college drinkers drink more, and more often, than other young people. College students also experience many problems related to the use of alcohol. Among these problems are the risks associated with very high levels of drinking, levels that can lead to catastrophic outcomes:

  • the death of two drunken men who fell out of a third story dormitory window at the University of Kentucky (blood alcohol levels of .22 and .19; The Courier-Journal, 2002),

  • the alcohol overdose of a medical student celebrating his 21st birthday from the Medical College of Georgia (The Augusta Chronicle, 2002),
  • the alcohol poisoning of a student at the University of Maryland (The Washington Post, 2002),

  • the death of a student from a fall while participating in an all day drinking party at the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania (Associated Press, 2002), and

  • the death of an Old Dominion University, Virginia, student from choking in his sleep (blood alcohol level of .50; Washington Post, 2002).

These grim observations are a testament to the importance of finding ways of preventing drinking to such extremes.


How Much Is Too Much?

Concern about college drinking has prompted researchers to examine binge drinking, drinking beyond four-or-five drinks on any drinking occasion. Researchers have discovered that binge drinking is common at the beginning of each academic year, especially among young men. But drinking four-or-five drinks just isn't enough alcohol to achieve blood alcohol levels of .20, and cannot explain those occasions on which students achieve blood alcohol levels of .50. These peak drinking levels do not happen very often, but when they do happen, catastrophic outcomes can occur.

The crucial problem for college drinking researchers is to find a way to predict these rare events so we can assess who is at greatest risk.

Researchers at Prevention Research Center, Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, with funding from a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, have studied the drinking patterns of over 3000 college students and discovered a way to identify those drinkers most likely to drink to these peak levels. Using mathematical models of drinking patterns, we can calculate the probability that these events will occur for individuals and groups of college drinkers.


Usual Drinking

Most drinkers know how much they “usually” drink. For example, survey studies show that most college drinkers report having only one or two drinks whenever they use alcohol. Most drinkers can also tell you how often they drink. College drinkers usually report drinking about six to eight times a month. College drinkers also report binge drinking about 30-40% of the times that they use alcohol. While these reports can tell us about the usual drinking patterns of college students, they cannot tell us about the unusual patterns; the times when excess is the rule rather than the exception.


Peak Drinking

Every drinker has a peak drinking level. In any month, a modest drinker may drink at most 2 drinks on any drinking occasion. Another drinker may drink a maximum of 4 or 5 drinks. Other drinkers with much higher peak drinking levels may drink 12 or more drinks from-time-to-time. The important point to keep in mind is that a person's peak drinking level corresponds to the most alcohol he or she is likely to drink over some time. Drinkers may or may not drink to these levels on any occasion. But, given enough time, and enough opportunities, very high levels of peak drinking can occur.

Looking at all college drinkers, peak drinking levels are rather modest: For women, typical peak drinking levels are about 2 drinks. For men, typical peak drinking levels are about 4 drinks. For freshmen males in college, typical peak drinking levels are about 6 drinks.

But, of course, we want to look at the extremes:

  • 10% of all college drinkers may have 12 or more drinks at least one time in a month.

  • 20% of male college drinkers may have 12 or more drinks at least one time in a month.

  • 1% of all college drinkers may have 24 or more drinks at least one time in a month.

  • 5% of male college drinkers may have 24 or more drinks at least one time in a month.

Among 1000 male college drinkers, there will be 50 or more occasions on which more than 24 drinks may be consumed. These are levels of drinking at which most men will have passed out or become comatose. These are levels at which extreme levels of drinking are exhibited and men are at risk for the very serious problems posed by peak drinking.


Research and Policy Implications

There are two general ways of dealing with the problem of college drinking: 1) educating college drinkers to understand the risks they take when drinking, and 2) designing safer college environments that reduce the opportunities for heavy drinking and the danger when heavy drinking does occur. Both types of approach can be strengthened by our new understanding of peak drinking among college students which helps pave the way toward better college prevention programs: We know that some college drinkers drink more than others. We can now identify those college students whose peak drinking places them at significant risk for catastrophic outcomes. We know that environmental prevention programs reduce frequencies of drinking (e.g., designated driver and responsible beverage sales and service programs, monitoring underage drinking). We can now focus those programs upon groups of drinkers most likely to become involved in potentially catastrophic drinking events.


The Take-Home Message

On some occasions, college students drink an alarming quantity - enough to cause poisoning or serious accidental injuries or death. These occasions may be infrequent, but when they do occur, they can have tragic consequences. These instances are most common among male freshman. College administrators, community leaders, and the students themselves should be aware of the dangers and intervene to prevent catastrophic drinking and its consequences through strategies that change college and community environments and through educating students about risks.