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Harvard Study Finds Binge Drinking Less Frequent on Diverse Campuses

By Megan Oglivie

White male college students may be less likely to binge drink at institutions with higher percentages of minority, female and older students, according to a study by Harvard School of Public Health researchers.

Analyzing data from 114 colleges in the United States that participated in four College Alcohol Study surveys from 1993 to 2001, researchers found that binge drinking rates of white males and underage students were significantly lower in schools that had more minority, female and older students. Dr. Henry Wechsler, director of the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Studies Program led the study.

In response to Wechsler’s findings of the moderating effects of student diversity on heavy episodic drinkers, Associate Dean of Student Life Daniel A. Trujillo thinks that MIT may be ahead of the curve.

“We do have a diverse student population, and certainly the recommendation of spreading the diversity, well, MIT already has a diverse population group,” said Trujillo.

Drinking rates vary among groups

Although approximately two of every five college students are binge drinkers, rates vary among student sub-groups, according to Wechsler.

Previous studies conducted by Wechsler have found that African American, Asian, female and older students have lower rates of binge drinking (low-risk groups) than do white, male, or younger students (high-risk groups).

The study found that incoming white freshmen who did not binge drink in high school were less likely to start binge drinking as college students if their campuses had higher proportions of African American, Latino, Asian, or older students.

In addition, incoming white freshmen that did binge drink in high school were less likely to continue drinking in this way at campuses with higher percentages of low-risk drinking groups.

In an effort to reduce binge drinking cases, the study suggests creating a campus environment that would attract a diverse student body, and encouraging women, minority and older students to live on campus, and in fraternity and sorority houses.

MIT students respond to study

According to a survey conducted by the Community Development and Substance Abuse program, 84 percent of MIT students drink zero to four drinks per week, and 50 percent of MIT students consume an average of zero drinks per week.

These numbers seem a little low for freshmen Irene S. Tobias ’07 and Heather D. Coffin ’07.

Although Coffin herself drinks very little, she has seen plenty of drinking among the freshmen class. When asked if the findings of the Harvard School of Public Health study made sense for the MIT community, she shook her head.

“From what I’ve seen, [drinking] may be more evenly distributed between men and women. The desire to drink may be the same,” Coffin said.

“Drinking is a behavior that takes place in a context and whatever the context, people are influenced by the environment that they are drinking in,” said Dr. Alan Berkowitz, one of the founders of the Social Norm Theory, a widely used marketing technique that promotes healthy norms about alcohol consumption in order to reduce college binge drinking.

“This study is proving something that makes intuitive sense based on all the things that we know about college student drinking patterns,” Berkowitz said.

Paul J. Mitchell G agrees that a person’s environment will affect their behavior. “If students are around people who are acting stupid, they will have an influence,” said Mitchell.

“Education might be good for freshmen who are living away from home for the first time,” said Mitchell.

The Harvard study also makes sense to Trujillo.

“Some incoming students come with an established pattern of drinking, and some increase their drinking once arriving on the college campus,” said Trujillo. “The first semester, even the first six weeks of a student’s college career can really set certain patterns of behavior.”

“We try and intervene early with students who may have had some experiences with alcohol, and [education] is one way to change behavior so those issues don’t exacerbate in the future,” said Trujillo.

‘Binge drinking’ is ‘controversial’

The Harvard study defined binge drinking as the consumption of at least five drinks in a row for men or four drinks in a row for women during a single episode. This is a common definition of binge drinking and is “now widely used in both research and policy,” said Dr. George Dowdall of Saint Joseph’s University.

Trujillo thinks that although the term “binge drinking” is used for research, it doesn’t accurately describe many college students’ drinking experiences.

“‘Binge drinking’ is a very controversial term,” Trujillo said. “‘Binge drinking,’ the way the term is defined, is rather ambiguous and doesn’t take into account blood alcohol levels,” said Trujillo.

According to estimates from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1,400 college students die each year from alcohol-related injuries. In addition, research has shown that binge drinking is associated with lower grades, vandalism, and physical and sexual violence in students.