According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), binge drinking involves consuming an excessive amount of alcohol over two hours, which raises one’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 or more, the level at which it is illegal to drive. For men, this usually involves five drinks or more, and for women, this is typically four drinks or more, in a two-hour time span.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines heavy alcohol use, which potentially leads to alcohol use disorder, as binge drinking five or more days in one month. People who binge drink don’t drink every day, but they still face problems when they consume alcohol because they typically drink too much during those occasions.
Binge drinking can be extremely dangerous. Consuming several servings of alcohol during one occasion can lead to acute physical harm, including alcohol poisoning. Drinking too much too often can lead to physical tolerance, alcohol dependence, addiction, and internal damage, especially to the liver. The younger a person is when they start consuming alcohol, the more likely they are to struggle with alcohol abuse or addiction later in life. Students who begin drinking while underage, including during social events in college, put themselves at risk of a lifetime of harm.
Who Binge Drinks the Most?
One estimate investigating the dramatic rise in heavy alcohol consumption in the United States suggested that 90 percent of people who drink too much, both adolescents and adults, do so through binge drinking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that, out of all the problematic drinking patterns, binge drinking is the deadliest. One in six US adults binge drinks four times per month, consuming an average of eight drinks per binge – far more than the line leading to 0.08 percent BAC.
About 88,000 people die every year due to excessive alcohol consumption. Men are twice as likely to binge drink as women, but that gap is closing.
Among those who drink too much too often, people between the ages of 18 and 34 are the most likely to binge drink. Overall, people who are under the legal drinking age, 21 years old, are most likely to binge drink. An older publication of the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) found that adolescents and underage young adults who binge drink are 11 times more likely, compared to other underage individuals who consume alcohol, to engage in other risky behaviors, such as smoking tobacco, other substance abuse, unsafe sexual practices, and physical violence.
Why is Binge Drinking in College Dangerous?
Thousands of college students every year begin consuming alcohol as part of their school-based social life, and too many of them drink to excess, develop problematic patterns of alcohol consumption, and put themselves at risk for long-term harm. One national survey found that 60 percent of college students between the ages of 18 and 22 consumed alcohol in the month prior; close to two out of three of that survey’s respondents binge drank on the occasions when they consumed alcohol.
Young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 who are in college are more likely, compared to their non-college peers, to drink to excess. This may be due to the wide availability of alcohol around college campuses, increased social pressure to drink, less structured time, inconsistent enforcement of underage drinking on and off campus, and stress related to academics. Students involved in specific social organizations, especially fraternities or sororities, are more likely to drink alcohol and binge drink compared to their peers.
College students are negatively impacted by binge drinking and the problems associated with binge drinking.
- Of the 88,000 people who die due to excessive alcohol consumption every year, 1,825 of those deaths are young adults between the ages of 18 and 24.
- Annually, 696,000 college students are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.
- About 97,000 of those college-age students report experiencing sexual assault or date rape.
- One in four students reports academic problems associated with drinking too much, leading to lower grades overall.
- Students who binge drank three times per week or more were six times more likely to perform poorly on class projects or tests as a result of their drinking when compared with students who reported drinking but not bingeing.
- Students who binge drank three or more times weekly were also five times more likely to miss class.
- Binge drinking at a young age, including in college, is linked to an increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD), sometimes colloquially called alcoholism; about 20 percent of college students meet the definition of AUD.
- College students who binge drink are at a greater risk of other problems, including attempting suicide, suffering injuries or other health problems, participating in unsafe sex practices, getting arrested due to breaking laws like vandalism, and driving while drunk.
Although some problematic adolescent and young adult behaviors are getting better with prevention efforts, rates of binge drinking on college campuses have been at about 40 percent for two decades, and it appears to be getting worse, not better.
Does Binge Drinking Lead to Alcohol Use Disorder?
College social life is more likely to involve alcohol, which may lead participants to associate positive outcomes, like making new friends and feeling less anxious or stressed, with consuming alcohol. This, combined with the reward-reinforcing intoxication, may lead these individuals to develop problem drinking and AUD.
Young adults, including college students, report consuming alcohol due to:
- Struggles with family relationships or academics
- Loneliness or low self-esteem
- Mental health concerns, including anxiety and depression
- Dealing with everyday pressures in social situations
- Wishing to change their image when in a new living situation or town
- A desire to lose inhibitions and gain confidence
- Their parents drinking, or allowing them to drink, so they started consuming alcohol in middle or high school
Although colleges are aware that binge drinking is dangerous, and nearly half of their students participate in the activity, enforcement of underage alcohol abuse laws is irregular. In addition, presidents, faculty, and alumni of colleges often intentionally look the other way. The assumption, for many, is that alcohol is part of life on campus; they experienced that kind of socially reinforced underage drinking, so why shouldn’t their students or children?
The combination of new stresses, potential underlying mental health or relationship issues, and a more permissive environment may lead students not just to binge drink, but to consistently drink too much, which can lead to alcohol dependence and addiction. The student may soon feel like they cannot participate in social events normally, or feel normal during the day, without consuming some alcohol; then, the student may quickly lose control over how much alcohol they consume because they are used to binge drinking.
Addressing the Alcohol Problem and Getting Help
Unfortunately, in 2012, funding cuts led to the dismantling of the federal program that helped colleges with alcohol and drug abuse prevention. NIAAA started a website, CollegeDrinkingPrevention.gov, to raise awareness, but without the support of administrators, faculty, and boards at colleges and universities, government and nonprofit prevention programs and support won’t go far.
Working with students earlier – as early as elementary or middle school – to discuss the dangers of substance abuse, including binge drinking, is a very important form of prevention. Students who are immersed in these kinds of educational programs are less likely to abuse substances later in life. Offering mental, behavioral, and even physical health programs on campus, without stigma, is another way for students to get treatment they need if they struggle with alcohol abuse.
Some rehabilitation programs are geared specifically toward adolescents and young adults. There are sober frats and sororities that support ongoing recovery. Ultimately, getting treatment for alcohol abuse as early as possible is the best way to maintain long-term health.