Monday, November 12, 2007

Binge drinking in context

According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 42 percent of college students qualify as binge drinkers. These numbers are based on a definition of binge drinking popularized by Harvard professor Henry Wechsler. While this number may seem staggering, it is misleading when put in context.

The Wechsler definition of binge drinking is consuming four or more drinks within an hour if you are a female and consuming five or more drinks within four hours if you are a male.

It is important to note that this definition is not a medical definition. Prior to Wechsler, binge drinking was considered continuous heavy drinking over two consecutive days. This is closer to the medical definition for binge drinking.

There is a great deal of data on binge drinking, but a lot of the information is incorrect or misleading.

For example, Ralph Hingson, a former Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) board member, estimated tha 1,400 college students die each year as a result of alcohol (binging, car accidents, etc). "USA Today" evaluated his data and found that on average only 620 students die each year. Out of that number only 36 were alcohol related.

What happens if you apply the Wechsler definition to adults? According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 70 percent of binge drinking episodes involve adults over the age of 25. In fact, the CDC reports that 75 percent of alcohol consumed by adults in the United States is in the form of binge drinking.

The concerns of parents over binge drinking are understandable, but what do students think?

When presented with this information, second year mathematics major Lourdes Gonzalez said, "I thought the number would be a little higher than 42 percent, especially considering that definition. I know several people who drink more than that, but are never drunk."

This is why the Wechsler definition is misleading. A person of average weight will not be legally drunk (defined as a Blood Alcohol Content of .08) with Wechsler's definition. Under the traditional definition, only .005 percent of college students qualified as binge drinkers.

"I have had more than five drinks over the course of an evening and have not been drunk. I think this definition is creating a problem that didn't exist before," said Ramon Acosta, a third-year electrical engineering major.

"This definition is unfair to college students. I've been told to be careful of college and drinking because people hear data like this," said Gonzalez.

While binge drinking may not be the pandemic some would make it out to be, the dangers of binge drinking are undeniable. High school health classes or warn students about the long-term effects of alcohol, but rarely do they tell students about what extreme amounts of alcohol can do to a body in one sitting.

Alcohol poisoning is a real disorder that can be fatal. Many know that inebriation is in part due to dehydration, but the symptoms of inebriation - like loss of motor skills or passing out - is the body shutting down the various parts of the brain the alcohol is affecting. People pass out because their body is stopping any more alcohol from entering. The final stage of alcohol poisoning is the body shutting down the last possible functions, your brain and heart.

Acosta said. "I've heard stories of people dying from alcohol, but I didn't know that being drunk was my body shutting down parts of my brain."

For the average male (160 pounds), taking that 21st shot on your birthday will put your BAC past .4, which can kill you. For the average woman (130 pounds), over 16 drinks in a short period of time can kill you.

"I've known friends who have passed out because they were drunk. It's kind of scary to think they were could have died," said Gonzalez.

This information is not intended to scare anyone. The purpose is to inform people about binge drinking and the dangers associated with it. For more information on binge drinking and the effects binge drinking on the brain, visit the Wellness Center.



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