Binge drinking low on area college campuses

By Julie Fann
Star Staff

Though binge drinking on college campuses, according to results from a new Harvard study, is still as common as it was in the early 1990s, two colleges in upper east Tennessee have a lower percentage of binge drinkers than the national average.
   "We were one of the sites examined in the Harvard binge drinking study and have been for several years in a row. Consistently, over time, we have about a 10 percent higher rate than the national average for non-drinking status. Our rate is about 25 percent non-drinking, whereas the national rate is about 15 percent," said Dr. Sally Lee, Associate Vice President of Student Affairs at East Tennessee State University.
   According to Kim Bushore-Maki, Coordinator of Outreach Programs at ETSU, the reason the university has a lower percentage of students who binge drink is due to several factors. Because the Tri-Cities area is religiously conservative, students who attend ETSU also tend to be more conservative. Also, only 2,000 of the university's students actually live on campus, while 9,000 are commuters. Finally, 43 percent of ETSU's student body is over the age of 23, past the age when most students are vulnerable to binge drinking and its effects.
   Lee stated that, though binge drinking does occur, it is rarely brought to the university's attention. When that happens, it is handled legally by the Johnson City Police Department and campus security. Bushore-Maki, however, deals directly with students who admit experiencing problems with binge drinking.
   "There is a small percentage of ETSU students who do high-risk drinking, increasing their likelihood of an impairment problem and long-term health risks," she said. Health problems that can occur later in life from regular binge drinking include cirrhosis of the liver, heart problems, and addiction.
   At Milligan College, Lee Fierbaugh, Director of Public Relations, expresses little concern over binge drinking since students there are required to sign a statement agreeing to avoid alcoholic beverages.
   "Binge drinking has not been an issue or problem for our campus, since we do not allow use of alcohol and do not sponsor alcohol parties or functions (no fraternities or sororities). Alcohol-related incidents on our campus are rare," she said. Milligan College is a private institution affiliated with the Churches of Christ.
   ETSU's Bushore-Maki explained that alcohol and/or drug use is involved in 75 percent of date-rape cases among college women. She said that college students often don't understand that, to be considered a binge drinker, alcohol intake limits for one sitting aren't that high. For women, more than four drinks in one sitting constitutes binge drinking, and, for men, it is five drinks.
   "Then, you must address the question of what amount of alcohol actually makes a drink," Bushore-Maki said. "Twelve ounces of beer is a drink; four ounces of wine is a drink, and one ounce of hard liquor is a drink. That means that drinking just one Long Island iced tea (a popular drink among college students) 'qualifies' someone as a binge drinker."
   Bushore-Maki coordinates the Alcohol Awareness Program at ETSU. Besides several small awareness programs that take place in dormitories and other areas on campus, ETSU also participates in National Alcohol Awareness week every fall semester. On April 4, ETSU will also host a program titled "Wellapalooza," named to resemble the popular alternative rock extravaganza "Lollapalooza."
   "April 4 is actually National Alcohol Screening Day. What we do is set up a booth on campus where students can complete a 10-question survey related to alcohol consumption," Bushore-Maki said. She and other counselors then review the questionnaire and inform students if they are at low or high risk for becoming addicted to alcohol and binge drinking.
   Bushore-Maki said Greek fraternity members and athletes make up the highest concentration of binge drinkers. A student worker in the office of Student Life and Leadership, however, said that fraternity and sorority recruitment numbers are down this year due to the events of Sept. 11 that interrupted initiation events.
   The biggest challenge for counselors on college campuses is convincing students who binge drink, most of whom are between the ages of 18 to 21, that their behavior can have long-term consequences. "Most students between those ages consider themselves invincible," said Bushore-Maki. "It is difficult for them to see that their present behavior is going to have a long-term effect on their health and lifestyle."
   She encourages students who come to her for counseling to beware of what she termed "red flags." signs that excessive drinking is interfering with a student's ability to cope with the demands of college life. "For instance, missing classes on a regular basis, receiving low grades, or being caught drinking in their dorm," are all indicators that a student is struggling with binge drinking, Bushore-Maki said.
   Bushore-Maki commended ETSU officials for the way they handle students who break the law. She believes the university does not send out any mixed messages about drinking.
   "Those students who develop problems with excessive drinking usually come from an environment where they received mixed messages," she stated. For example, a student who has a family member who drinks but who is told by that family member that drinking is wrong may be more vulnerable to developing a problem with alcohol abuse. Also, a student who joins a fraternity but whose family background is religious could also be at risk of later problems.
   According to Bushore-Maki, the entire community, including local bars, will need to get involved if binge drinking incidents are to be curtailed. For instance, bars that offer happy hour or "all you can drink" promotions only exacerbate the problem. Also, parents need to talk to their children and churches also need to be involved.
   ETSU student Malcolm McGregor said his experience of binge drinking was minimal, "especially compared to when I visit other schools like Appalachian State or U.V.A.," McGregor said.
   According to the Harvard study, of those traditional college students who drink -- 18 to 23-year-olds not living with their parents -- seven out of 10 said they had met the definition of binge drinking (four or more drinks in a row for women, or five or more drinks for men).
   "That's a staggering number," said Henry Wechsler, director of College Alcohol Studies at Harvard School of Public Health and lead investigator of the study.