The Arizona Desert Lamp

College drinking: worse than the war in Iraq?

Posted in Campus, Culture by Evan Lisull on 18 June 2009

Soviet Anti-Alcohol AgitpropThe latest prohibitionist scare comes courtesy of this press release, which was duly reported without critique by both the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed. From the Chronicle:

Despite university campaigns to discourage alcohol abuse, a new study shows that drinking-related activities among college students have increased over the last decade.

. . .

“The fact that we’re not making progress is very concerning,” said Ralph Hingson, the lead researcher and director of the institute’s division of epidemiology and prevention research. “The irony is that during this same time period, our knowledge of what works as far as intervention in this age group has increased. That knowledge isn’t yet being put into place.

The study (which can be obtained for a hefty fee here) concludes with this very professional and scholarly paragraph:

In 2005, among 18- to 24-year-olds both in college and not in college, nearly 12 million consumed five or more drinks on at least one occasion in the past month, and more than 7 million drove under the influence of alcohol in the past year. Among 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States, injuries are the leading cause of death, and alcohol is the leading contributor, being a factor in more than 5,000 deaths in that age group each year. To place that number in perspective, it exceeds the total number of U.S. soldiers who have died in the war in Iraq.

Let’s take a look at some of the graphs from the study (Citation: Hingson, R.W., Zha, W., and Weitzman, E.R. Magnitude of and Trends in Alcohol-Related Mortality and Morbidity Among U.S. College Students Ages 18-24, 1998-2005. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, Supplement No. 16: 12-20, July 2009):

Heavy Episodic Drinking Graph

“Heavy episodic drinking” is the latest trendy academese for “binge drinking,” and the biggest gains are 5 percent over the course of six years – not exactly the end of the world. For all the hooplah that is raised over underage drinking, levels of binge drinking by this subset has been more or less flatline – for non-college, underage adults (consider that oxymoron), the number is on a downward trajectory.

It should be pointed out that this is not continuous, perpetual drunkenness (the school week, as we call it down here). The percentage reflects that number of adults that had five or more drinks at one point over the course of the past month – in other words, one bad night, or one celebration at the end of finals. If this is considered “risky behavior,” then the word has lost all meaning.

Drunk Driving Graph

Yet here is the more surprising trend – for all the hand-wringing over drunk driving by young adults, every single category is on a downward trajectory. What’s more, drunk driving occurs at far higher levels among those of legal drinking age. Given these two results, one might be tempted to call this an era of responsible binge drinking. Of course, saying that a problem is actually getting less bad never results in any more funding for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA, the sponsor of the study) – thus, such studies have a tendency to emphasize the negative in their press releases.

The article instead finds a new target for rage: “unintentional, nontraffic injury deaths related to alcohol.” As the report states, “From 1998 to 2001 to 2005, the rate of unintentional alcohol-related nontraffic injury deaths among 18- to 24-year-old college students increased from 3.9 to 4.0 to 4.9 per 100,000 college students, a significant 25.6% increase (relative risk ratio [RR] = 1.23, 95% CI: 1.07-1.42).”

Unintentional Injury Death Graph

Naturally, there’s a caveat:

It should be noted that, relative to other unintentional injury deaths, poisoning deaths increased much more sharply among 18- to 24-year-olds between 1998 and 2005, from 779 to 2,290, nearly tripling during that period. Unintentional injury deaths other than poisonings actually declined slightly about 2%.

This is in reference to all unintentional injury deaths, not alcohol-related – and as the above table states, only 26.6 percent of this increase can be accounted for by alcohol. The proportion of alcohol-related poisoning deaths to total poisoning deaths reminds almost exactly the same. It’s worth reprinting the blustery assertions from the conclusion:

Among 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States, injuries are the leading cause of death, and alcohol is the leading contributor, being a factor in more than 5,000 deaths in that age group each year.

For starters, this last clause is a patent lie, considering their own data:

Injury Deaths Graph

As you can see, the total number of alcohol-related injury deaths for 18-24 year-olds is 4,808 in 1998. Yet more important is what the authors neglect to mention – the fact that the increase in alcohol-related deaths is outweighed by the increase in non-alcohol related deaths. While unintentional injury deaths rose by 25 percent, alcohol related deaths only rose by 15 percent. Non-alcohol related injury deaths (row 4 values –  row 5 values), by way of comparison, rose by 34 percent. (It’s the sober kids in need of intervention!) This is also a fact that can’t be explained away by drunk driving – after all, those deaths went down in relation to the total population, by 3 percent when the rate of population increase was taken into account.

Then there’s the fact that even if alcohol might be “related,” that’s quite a ways away from being directly responsible. After all, these stats don’t account for BAC – for all we know, those who died of hypothermia could’ve been drinking in an attempt to stay warm (which might help to explain the 90 percent figure for “relation”). Yet this reflects the zero-tolerance MADD approach – the moment a drop of demon liquor hits the tongue, it is responsible for all tomfoolery that comes hereafter. The rest of the sane world understands the difference between a glass of wine and a power hour.

Yet for all their skepticism of the current administration, the National Review completely suspends all doubt for the NIAAA, responding to the study with this:

While there is (justifiably) much hand-wringing about these stats, very few people seem to understand the ultimate cause. Colleges say they need more money and resources to educate students as to the consequences of excessive drinking. Commenters blame parents who “demonize” alcohol consumption. (Yes, that’s our problem — excessive parental disapproval of alcohol — when almost any high-school principal can tell you legions of tales of parent-hosted drinking parties.)

The real culprit, of course, is culture. Colleges have developed a culture of nearly unrestrained hedonism. Binge drinking isn’t an accident, it’s the entire point of the Thursday (or is it now Wednesday?) to Sunday party circuit. For the college hedonist, binge drinking facilitates the so-called “hookup culture.” And when it comes to sex, the university message is, shall we say, mixed. Do it! (but safely) is the college theme. One university, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, apparently believes that providing student-fee funding to the Roman Catholic Foundation somehow threatens the Republic, yet will throw hundreds of thousands of dollars at a student group called “Sex Out Loud.”

Do it! (but safely) is a losing message, especially when combined with a concerted effort to demonize those private religious voices that may offer alternatives to a culture that dominates campus. From the more “staid” schools like Harvard to the national champions of the party lifestyle at Florida, “do it” dominates “safely,” and the one ultimate answer — a different moral code — is simply not an option. After all, some of the same people arguing for a better path may — in their heart of hearts — not support same-sex marriage. And we can’t have that kind of voice on campus, can we?

Not only is gaymarriage going to take away your peanut-butter sandwich, but it’s also killing your kids on the road. For all this madness about colleges “creating” culture, the drunk and hedonist campus has existed, on record, since the eleventh century. The article is awesome enough to quote again:

Drinking Notes: Students in the Middle Ages had never heard of tea, coffee, or cigarettes, let alone iced frappuccinos, but alcohol was an integral feature of Oxford life, guzzled continually by students and teachers alike. Statutes even provided that students supply their professors with a decent amount of wine during examinations. At a banquet, adventurous guests might be treated to Hypocras, a supposedly aphrodisiac (and insanely expensive) cocktail of Burgundy, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, and cardamom.

This drunken “do it” attitude is 500 years older than the entire Protestant movement and Montaigne’s witnessing of a gay marriage in Rome, 600 years older than the founding of the American colonies, 700 years older than Edmund Burke and the American War of Independence, 800 years older than Abraham Lincoln, 950 years older than the first Women’s Studies Program etc. etc. College drinking is, in fact, what one might call a tradition, or perhaps a “permanent thing.”

(And no, it’s not worse than the war in Iraq. What a stupid comparison.)

Soviet anti-alcohol propaganda courtesy of The Museum of Anti-Alcohol Posters.

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