College Drinking Problem Getting Worse, Study Finds

Alcohol-related deaths, binge-drinking and drunk driving have all been on the rise on college campuses over the past decade, a U.S. government study finds.

The number of drinking-related accidental deaths among 18- to 24-year- old college students rose from 1,440 per 100,000 in 1998 to 1,825 per 100,000 in 2005, according to researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

During the same period, their study found, the proportion of students who reported recent binge-drinking rose from roughly 42 percent to 45 percent, and the proportion who admitted to drinking and driving in the past year increased from 26 percent to 29 percent.

The findings, based on figures from government databases and national surveys on alcohol use, are published in a special issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs devoted to college-drinking problems.

"The fact that we're not making progress is very concerning," said lead researcher Dr. Ralph Hingson, director of the NIAAA's division of epidemiology and prevention research, in a written statement.

"The irony," he said, "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."

Hingson pointed to the success of projects funded by the NIAAA's Rapid Response to College Drinking Problems Initiative — which, in 2004 and 2005, selected 15 universities with serious alcohol problems to work with the agency and other experts in developing prevention programs.

Schools tested a number of programs, ranging from the individual level — like counseling for students with drinking problems — to community efforts that involved law enforcement and residents of neighborhoods surrounding college campuses.

It's likely, according to Hingson, that a mix of such programs is needed to best address college drinking problems.

"There's no silver bullet for this," he said, "but the more levels at which we try to intervene, the more effective we'll be. Colleges and communities need to work together, because neither can do it alone."

Legislation may also make a difference, according to Hingson. State laws that set the legal drinking age at 21, for example, have been credited with curbing alcohol-related road deaths. And an "interesting" finding from this study, Hingson noted, is that the increases in binge-drinking, drinking and driving, and alcohol-related deaths were seen only among 21- to 24-year-olds, and not 18- to 20- year-olds.