College alcohol problems exceed previous estimates

March 18, 2005

The harm caused by alcohol consumption among college students may exceed previous estimates of the problem. Researchers report that unintentional fatal injuries related to alcohol increased from about 1,500 in 1998 to more than 1,700 in 2001 among U.S. college students aged 18-24. Over the same period national surveys indicate the number of students who drove under the influence of alcohol increased by 500,000, from 2.3 million to 2.8 million. The new findings appear in the 2005 issue of the Annual Review of Public Health, now online at http://arjournals.annualreviews.org/loi/publhealth.

"This paper underscores what we had learned from another recent study - that excessive alcohol use by college-aged individuals in the U.S. is a significant source of harm," said Ting-Kai Li, M.D., Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"The magnitude of problems posed by excessive drinking among college students should stimulate both improved measurement of these problems and efforts to reduce them," added the report's lead author Ralph W. Hingson, Sc.D, Professor at the Boston University School of Public Health and Center to Prevent Alcohol Problems Among Young People.

As a member of the NIAAA Task Force on College Drinking, Dr. Hingson and other researchers reported in 2002 that alcohol contributed to an estimated 1,400 injury deaths among college students age 18-24 in 1998. A subsequent change in college census methodology that increased the estimated number of 18-24 year olds who were college students in 1998 led to an upward revision of that estimate to about 1,500 deaths. The same methods were used to calculate the 2001 estimates in the current review article.

Dr. Hingson and colleagues from the Schools of Public Health at Boston University and Harvard University gathered information about drinking and its consequences among college students for the year 2001. Their analyses included data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, and the Harvard College Alcohol Survey, as well as national coroner studies and census and college enrollment data for 18-24 year olds. They compared the 2001 data with similar analyses of 1998 data that they published in 2002.

"In both 1998 and 2001 more than 500,000 students were unintentionally injured because of drinking and more than 600,000 were assaulted by another student who had been drinking," said Dr. Hingson. "We must remember, however, that since the 18-24 year old non-college population vastly outnumbers the college population, they actually account for more alcohol-related problems than do college students. For example, while 2.8 million college students drove under the influence of alcohol in 2001, so too did 4.5 million college-aged persons who were not in college."

Dr. Hingson and his colleagues propose data collection practices that they believe would improve future analyses of the consequences of college drinking. For example, they call for alcohol testing in every injury death in the United States.

"The data already collected on the numbers of alcohol-related fatal crashes annually in each state has proven invaluable to researchers seeking to study the effects of state-level legislative interventions to reduce alcohol-related traffic deaths," they note. "Unfortunately, without comprehensive testing for alcohol and determination of college student status of all persons who die from falls, drownings, poisoning, homicide, suicide, and any other kind of injury, we lack the most dependable yardstick by which to measure the magnitude of alcohol-related fatal injuries among college students, and whether this figure is changing over time."

The researchers conclude that greater enforcement of the legal drinking age of 21 and zero tolerance laws, increases in alcohol taxes, and wider implementation of screening and counseling programs, and comprehensive community interventions are among the strategies that can reduce college drinking and associated harm to students and others.
-end-


NIH/National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

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