Binge Drinking Entrenched in College Culture

It's been nearly a year since 19-year-old Samantha Spady was found dead of alcohol poisoning in a fraternity house at Colorado State University. Spady's blood alcohol content was 0.436 -- five times the legal limit -- and investigators say she consumed up to 40 drinks the day before she died.

Spady's death was far from the only alcohol-related campus tragedy last year, and as school starts up again this year, colleges and universities across the country are bracing for more booze-fueled chaos.

Each year, college drinking contributes to an estimated 1,400 student deaths, 500,000 injuries and 70,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a part of the federal National Institutes of Health.

Government and universities are pouring millions of dollars into programs to crack down on or curb campus "binge drinking," but there's been little change in students' behavior over the past decade.

Many experts studying alcohol use on college campuses say excessive drinking is so deeply entrenched in the culture, only a radical shift in students' attitude toward drinking will help.

What Is 'Binge Drinking'?

Spady's parents, Patty and Rick, have started a group called the SAM (Student Alcohol Management) Spady Foundation, whose mission is to educate students and parents about risky alcohol use.

Patty Spady says she and her husband "regret daily" that they never talked to Sam -- a former homecoming queen and high school class president -- about the fact that heavy drinking could be deadly. But she also admits that she wasn't totally aware of the dangers herself. "I feel like kids are going out with the intention of getting drunk," she said. "About that style of drinking -- I was totally naïve."

Binge drinking is commonly defined as having five or more drinks in one sitting, and the number of college students considered binge drinkers -- around 44 percent -- has stayed about the same for the past decade.

But ask many college students, and that definition of binge drinking seems ludicrous.

Barrett Seaman, a former Time magazine editor, observed student behavior on 12 college campuses for his recently released book, "Binge: What Your College Student Won't Tell You." He found that many students are drinking far more than five drinks over the course of a night.

"Students are routinely knocking back 20 shots a night," Seaman said.

Pregaming and Other Drinking Rituals

Seaman, who admits he did his fair share of drinking at Hamilton College in upstate New York in the 1960s, says he was struck by the "intensity" of student drinking today.

One common ritual he saw while reporting for the book was "pregaming," where underage students sat in their dorm rooms or apartments and drank massive amounts of alcohol, usually hard liquor, in order to catch a buzz before going out for the evening.

Seaman says that because drinking is illegal for so many college students, they are forced to do it covertly -- and often dangerously -- because there's no telling when they will get another drink as they roam from party to party.

"It is cool to be ostentatiously drunk," he said. "It shows you're part of the elite who has access to alcohol."

Dr. Hoyt Alverson, an anthropology professor at Darmouth University, had his undergraduate students spend three years studying fellow students' social behavior at the school. Alcohol, he says, is inextricably linked with social life on campus.

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