Not your father’s binge drinking

Over the past 15 years, an enormous amount of time, money and resources has been poured into the effort to lower the rate of binge drinking in the United States. You’d think it would have made a difference by now – but according to a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, binge drinking remains almost as prevalent as it was in the mid-1990s.

The report, which appeared earlier this month in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Review, found that binge drinking is common among high school students and adults in the U.S. and that prevention has made few inroads. The study used data from the 2009 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System of 412,000 adults and the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, involving about 16,400 youths.

Among some of the key findings: About 15 percent of the adults reported binge drinking, defined as four or more drinks on one occasion for women and five or more drinks on one occasion for men during the 30 days preceding the survey. The rate was highest among the 18- to 24-year-old age group.

Nearly one-fourth of the high school students reported binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks within a couple of hours on at least one day during the 30 days preceding the survey. Girls were almost as likely as boys to engage in binge drinking, and the behavior also was more common among students who reported overall alcohol use.

For some reason, binge drinking often doesn’t grab society’s attention to the same extent as other risky behaviors. Nor is it necessarily even seen as risky. When the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration queried nearly 45,000 adolescents about their risk perceptions, the majority of youths saw cigarettes, cocaine and heroin as more risky than binge drinking.

It’s not clear why this is the case. Part of the explanation may lie in community or cultural norms and what’s considered typical adolescent behavior. If the surveys are any indication, the majority of young people in fact do not engage in binge drinking. But many adults have the attitude that “everyone does it, we binged when we were that age and it didn’t hurt us, so what’s the big deal?”

Middle-aged parents can sometimes romanticize their youthful binge drinking days as an adolescent rite of passage. What a lot of them don’t realize is the intensity that’s often associated these days with binge drinking, and the popularity of games such as sloshball and Edward Winey Hands that incite young people to drink far more than they realize or perhaps intend. Debate over what constitutes binge drinking may have further blurred the issue by suggesting that four or five drinks in a row is actually normal college drinking behavior.

There’s a strong consensus in the research that binge drinking is a serious public health issue with implications both for individuals and for society. Multiple studies have shown that people who binge drink are more likely to drive after drinking, have unplanned sex or sustain some type of injury. Students also were more likely to miss class or fall behind in their schoolwork when they engaged in binge drinking. I suspect the same thing happened a generation ago, but the stakes seem much higher now, with many more opportunities for kids to get into serious trouble. In recent years several college students in the upper Midwest have died after leaving parties where they drank too much.

We know much more about brain development than we did even 20 years ago. It’s now known that the human brain doesn’t reach full maturity until we’re in our mid-20s, and that exposure to alcohol, particularly the high levels associated with binge drinking, can have long-term repercussions.

Given all of this, condoning youthful binge drinking as “kids will be kids” doesn’t really cut it anymore.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

2 thoughts on “Not your father’s binge drinking

  1. Excellent article. This goes right along with a book a friend gave me called “The Sobering Truth” by Jeff Herten, M.D. There can be devastating physical effects from alcohol. I learned it can cause cancer including: breast, mouth, throat esophagus, stomach, colon, rectum, liver and prostate and is a suspected promoter of pancreatic cancer. Michael Douglas is a prime example.

  2. “Middle-aged parents can sometimes romanticize their youthful binge drinking days as an adolescent rite of passage.” Parents who feel this way are in denial and are playing ‘Russian Roulette’ with their kids. Instead of trying to be ‘cool with our kids’ let’s step up and give them what they really need – parents!

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