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College Drinking Study Is Intoxicating Scam

This week’s news about excessive college drinking is another shocking example of statistical deception by shameless activists manipulating a media panting for sensationalism.

USA Today’s "College drinking kills 1,400 a year, study finds" was the typical headline.

The frenzy was sparked by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s report, "A Call to Action: Changing the Culture of Drinking at U.S. Colleges."

In addition to the alleged death toll, the report’s other alarmist claims include: 500,000 college students are injured while under the influence of alcohol; 600,000 are assaulted; 70,000 are the victims of sexual assault; 400,000 had unsafe sex; 25 percent have academic problems; and 150,000 have alcohol-related health problems or tried to commit suicide.

If true, these figures would make college worthy of a Surgeon General’s warning.

But none of these likely-to-be-immortalized factoids resulted from an actual count. They’ve been produced by statistical guesswork.

"A Call to Action" doesn’t present the analysis behind these claims. It only references a new study simultaneously published in the March 2002, Journal of Studies on Alcohol. The study’s lead author is Ralph Hingson of the Boston University School of Public Health.

As an example of how goofy Hingson’s numbers are, here’s how he calculated the headline-grabbing estimate of 1,400 deaths.

There are about 25.5 million 18- to 24-year-olds living in the U.S., according to U.S. Census data. Thirty-one percent of this age group are enrolled as full or part-time students in two-or four-year colleges.

The number of alcohol-related motor vehicle crash deaths among 18-24 years olds during 1998 is 3,674; 31 percent of this figure is 1,138.

Similarly applying the 31 percent factor to the 991 alcohol-related, non-traffic deaths among 18- to 24-year-olds in 1998 results in an additional 307 deaths.

Adding the 307 and 1,138 figures equals the alleged 1,445 alcohol-related deaths annually among college students.

But Hingson relies on a key, but unsupported assumption. It does not automatically follow that college students constitute 31 percent of alcohol deaths simply because 31 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds are college students.

The simplistic reasoning is equivalent to assuming that because women constitute about half the population, they commit half of all crime. In fact, men commit more than 75 percent of crime.

The definition of what constitutes an "alcohol-related" death is another problem.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines a fatal traffic crash as being alcohol-related if either a driver or a pedestrian had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.01 grams per deciliter (g/dl).

But 0.10 g/dl is the traditional level at which persons are considered to be intoxicated. Just because a person involved in a fatal accident has a measurable BAC doesn’t mean that the alcohol caused or contributed to the accident.

Even accepting Hingson’s results at face value, his study is still silly.

There isn't a statistically-meaningful difference in rates of alcohol-related problems between college students and non-college students.

Hingson estimates, for example, that 41 percent of college students binge on occasion as compared to 36.5 percent of non-college students. But the relative difference between the two estimates (14 percent) is too small to be reliably detected in his crude data and analysis.

Also, if college students have alcohol problems in proportion to their presence in the age group, why crackdown only on college students? Are the other 69 percent of 18- to 24-year olds not worthy of attention?

Why is Hingson playing fast and loose with the data?

He’s on the board of directors of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

Although MADD began in 1980 with the laudable goal of reducing drunk-driving fatalities, it has strayed beyond its original mission. "If truth-in-advertising laws applied to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, its name would be changed to Mothers Against All Drinking of Any Kind," says the Center for Consumer Freedom.

MADD’s crusade has turned into a prohibitionist movement. Focusing on college kids and pressuring universities seems to be the new tactic to implement its misguided goal.

Mark Goldman, co-chair of the NIAAA task force that produced "A Call to Action" told the Los Angeles Times, "Our society has always dealt with [college drinking] with a wink and a nod, as a rite of passage. But the statistics that Ralph Hingson has put together are stunning to all of us, even the most seasoned researchers."

This scam must be very intoxicating. How can "seasoned researchers" fall for such obviously flawed analysis? Will they also be using the movie Animal House as evidence of excessive college drinking?

There is no question that some alcohol abuse occurs among college students as it does among all 18- to 24-year-olds. However, this is hardly news or an excuse for junk science.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com , an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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