By DR. TIFFANY CHAO, ABC News Medical Unit
The negative effects of binge drinking are well-known, which makes the findings of new research released today linking binge drinking and reported happiness in college students troubling to many health experts.
Researchers asked undergraduate students at a Northeastern liberal arts college to fill out a survey on their drinking behaviors - and to sweeten the pot, they offered free pizza to those who responded. Fifty-eight percent of the students responded for a total of 1,595 undergrads.
What their responses revealed was that students who report binge drinking also report being happier than their non-binge drinking peers. The results were released this morning at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in Denver.
Specifically, the survey revealed that happiness was directly related to "status" - with wealthy, white, male, heterosexual and/or Greek-affiliated students being happier than "lower status" students.
However, in "lower status" students - in other words, less wealthy, female, non-white, homosexual, and/or non-Greek affiliated students - those who binge drink report levels of social satisfaction that are comparable to their high status counterparts.
Binge drinking is defined as consuming more than four drinks per session for females and consuming more than five drinks per session for males.
"Binge drinking is a symbolic proxy for higher social status in college and is correspondingly related to greater social satisfaction," writes Carolyn Hsu, lead author on the study and chair of Sociology and Anthropology at Colgate University.
In other words, binge drinking to "fit in" may actually lead to increased happiness - a phenomenon that does not appear to have gone unnoticed by the alcohol industry.
"The insight that people drink to attain social status is not [new]," says David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Alcohol marketers intentionally market social aspirations - for example, an ad for Johnnie Walker from the 1990s had the bottle suspended from wires with other objects floating around it, like a mobile - and the tag-line was 'Upwardly mobile.'"
While upward mobility through binge drinking may help lower status students attain happiness, drinking may also be necessary to help higher status students maintain happiness. Another finding in the study is that high status students who do not binge drink report lower levels of social satisfaction than their binge drinking, high status peers.
"Binge drinking may also be a prerequisite for receiving the full benefits of high status group membership," writes study author Hsu.
The association between binge drinking and social happiness among both high- and low-status students is a link that doctors find treacherous.
"I find the overall information to be very sad," says Dr. Edwin Salsitz, chair of the Education and Program Committee of the New York Society of Addiction Medicine. "Binge drinking is dangerous on many different levels, yet these students seem to derive benefits from this behavior."
In fact, despite persistent efforts by college administrations to curb excessive alcohol consumption, it remains a major problem in universities.
"College binge drinking still poses a significant health threat," says Tom Parker, communications director for Lines for Life, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent substance abuse and suicide. "The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimated 1,700 deaths of college students in particular [as a result of excessive drinking].
"In addition, each year, more than 696,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking," he continued, "more than 400,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 had unprotected sex as a result of their drinking each year, and approximately 25 percent of college students report academic consequences of their drinking."
In light of these statistics, some doctors are hopeful that recognizing the social benefits of binge drinking may help identify targets for alcohol education programs.
"For the price of a six-pack or two of beer, a minority or poorer student can feel as if they have become a member of the Beverly Hills Country Club," says Dr. Mark Jaffe, a psychiatrist at Cliffside Malibu Drug Detox Program. Understanding this impulse to feel accepted, he suggests, allows health experts to develop "better ways to change the social and cultural pressures that exist in colleges that cause binge drinking to occur."
Nevertheless, while some propose using this new information in a productive manner, other experts suggest that these findings must be interpreted with caution.
"Since [the study] is descriptive and not experimental, the two end points may not be linked," says Dr. Fulton T. Crews, director of the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "It is possible drinking reflects satisfaction for some, [but] changes mood, creating dissatisfaction for others. "
Other doctors suggest that the associations may not be causal at all - in other words, happier students and binge drinking might just happen to appear together, without one influencing the other.
"This does not mean that the alcohol is what leads to the satisfaction," says Dr. Richard Saitz, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health. "Imagine a school where it is the norm to wear a T-shirt with the sports team's logo and most students report doing so. Would it be a surprise to find out that those who wore the shirt were more socially satisfied? I don't think so. Would the shirt be causing social satisfaction? Probably not."
In other words, some experts say, the association in the study should be taken with a grain of salt.