Underage college drinkers have easy access to alcohol, pay less, and consume more per occasion than older students

June 18, 2000

Despite the national 21-year minimum drinking age law, underaged drinking is pervasive on college campuses, according to a new study.

"In these settings, where about one half of students are under age 21, regular use and abuse of alcohol is part of many students' environments," said lead author Henry Wechsler, Ph.D., of the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA.

Wechsler and colleagues from Harvard, UCLA, and St. Joseph's University surveyed approximately 7,000 college students under the age of 21 and approximately 5,000 students aged 21-23 about their drinking patterns.

The underage students surveyed, most of whom reported that it was "easy" or "very easy" to obtain alcohol, were more likely to drink in private settings such as dorms and fraternity parties, and they were more likely to obtain alcohol inexpensively.

More than half (57 percent) of underage students who drank reported that they paid less than one dollar for a drink, got it free, or paid a set price for an unlimited number of drinks compared to 15 percent of students 21 to 23 years of age. "Easily obtainable cheap alcohol, especially beer, fuels binge drinking for underage college students," Wechsler said.

Underaged college students drink less frequently: 63 percent of the underaged students reported drinking in the past 30 days compared with 74 percent of the of-age students. However, underage students drink more per occasion than older students: 42 percent had five-or-more drinks compared with 27 percent of the older students, the researchers found.

Underaged students were also significantly more likely to experience alcohol-related problems, such as engaging in unplanned sexual activity, damaging property, injuring themselves, getting into trouble with police, being treated for alcohol overdose, doing something they later regretted, or forgetting their actions, according to the study.

One alcohol-related problem not associated with underaged students was driving while intoxicated. Students under 21 were half as likely as of-age students to drive after drinking. "This may be related to zero-tolerance drunk driving laws aimed at underaged drinkers," said Wechsler. The study results appear in the July issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

In addition to stricter enforcement of the drinking-age law at bars, the researchers suggested legislation targeting happy hours, alcohol promotions, and the sale of beer in kegs. "Areas near college campuses are characterized by a high density of alcohol outlets, intense competition for customers, and high-volume, reduced-price sales," said Wechsler.

The practice -- common with fraternities and other campus groups -- of charging an admission fee entitling guests to unlimited drinks should also be targeted, say the researchers, since surveyed students who received drinks for a set price were more likely to binge. "Eliminating this practice of selling alcohol without a license should be a priority," said Wechsler.
This study was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, sponsored by the Association of Teachers of Preventive Medicine and the American College of Preventive Medicine, is published eight times a year by Elsevier Science. The Journal is a forum for the communication of information, knowledge, and wisdom in prevention science, education, practice, and policy. For more information about the journal, contact the editorial office at 619-594-7344.

Center for Advancing Health

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