The consequences of college drinking are larger and more destructive than commonly realized, according to a new study supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Commissioned by the NIAAA Task Force on College Drinking, the study reveals that drinking by college students age 18-24 contributes to an estimated 1,400 student deaths, 500,000 injuries, and 70,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape each year. It also estimates that more than one-fourth of college students that age have driven in the past year while under the influence of alcohol.

"The harm that college students do to themselves and others as a result of excessive drinking exceeds what many would have expected," says lead author Ralph W. Hingson, Sc.D., Professor of Social Behavioral Sciences and Associate Dean for Research at Boston University School of Public Health. "Our data clearly point to the need for better interventions against high-risk drinking in this population." Dr. Hingson and colleagues from Boston University, the Harvard University School of Public Health, and the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, derived their data by integrating a number of national databases containing information about drinking and its consequences. Their study appears in the March 2002 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol.

"These numbers paint a picture of a deeply entrenched threat to the health and well-being of our young people," adds Raynard S. Kington, M.D., Ph.D., Acting Director of NIAAA. "This study, and the NIH report released today by the Task Force on College Drinking, are an urgent call-to-action for educators, researchers, students and society in general. Today, NIAAA is sending the Task Force report to every college in the U.S. The findings of the Task Force also serve as a timely reminder for students and others to assess their personal drinking habits on National Alcohol Screening Day, which takes place this week on April 11. The 2,500 screening locations across the country include sites at more than 550 colleges and universities."

A blue-ribbon panel of more than three dozen college presidents, scientists, and students, the Task Force was convened by NIAAA’s National Advisory Council to conduct a comprehensive review of research on college drinking and the effectiveness of methods to prevent it. The Hingson study is one of two dozen studies commissioned by the Task Force as part of this review. Most of the commissioned papers have been published in a special supplement to the March 2002 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol. The Task Force’s report, titled "A Call to Action: Changing the Culture of Drinking at U.S. Colleges," outlines recommendations for college administrators and researchers to address high-risk college drinking.

"The consequences of excessive drinking are far too common on many college campuses nationwide, and efforts to reduce high-risk drinking and its related problems have largely failed," says Task Force co-chair Mark Goldman, Ph.D., Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida. "But we need not accept high-risk drinking on our campuses as inevitable. If colleges and communities work together, they can change these harmful drinking patterns. We hope this report will help them do that, by providing tools to help them make more informed decisions."

A Minority of Heavy Drinkers

Though common on many campuses, alcohol abuse does not run rampant among all college and university students. Previous studies have shown that most students drink moderately or abstain, with the proportion of nondrinkers increasing from 15 to 19 percent between 1993 and 1999. Other evidence, however, points to an increase in more extreme forms of college drinking. About 40 percent of students binge drink, defined as five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more drinks for women. In a recent survey, about 20 percent of students reported bingeing more than three times in the last two weeks. This group of frequent binge drinkers accounts for nearly 70 percent of all the alcohol consumed by college students.

"Although a minority of college students engage in high-risk drinking, all students, and their parents, faculty, and members of the surrounding community suffer the negative consequences of alcohol abuse, such as assault, vandalism, and traffic accidents," says Reverend Edward Malloy, President of the University of Notre Dame, and co-chair of the Task Force. "And I’ve lived in college dormitories for much of my adult life, so I know firsthand the impact irresponsible drinking has on the quality of residential life."

According to the Task Force research, drinking rates are highest among incoming freshmen, males, members of fraternities or sororities, and athletes. Students who attend two-year institutions, religious schools, commuter schools, or predominantly or historically black colleges and universities drink the least.

Recommended Strategies and Future Research

The Task Force studied research on alcohol prevention among college students to find out what works, what doesn’t, and what research is needed to develop better prevention programs. They noted that research on prevention of college drinking is relatively new and the data are incomplete.

"The evidence supporting the alcohol abuse prevention strategies in the literature varies widely," explains Dr. Goldman, "often reflecting the fact that some strategies have not been as thoroughly studied as others or have not been evaluated in college settings."

However, the Task Force noted that alcohol research clearly indicates that multiple factors, from genetic and biological characteristics, to family and cultural backgrounds, to particular college environments interact to produce various drinking patterns. They called for the use of comprehensive, integrated programs with multiple complementary components to address the problem.

"Prevention strategies must simultaneously target three constituencies: the student population as a whole; the college and its surrounding environment; and the individual at-risk or alcohol-dependent drinker," says Dr. Goldman. "Research strongly supports strategies that target each of these factors."

The Task Force developed a 3-in-1 Framework to help colleges and universities design prevention programs that target each of these constituencies. The framework identifies the target area(s) that each strategy addresses and uses the following four-tier system to rank the strength of the scientific evidence available to support or refute each strategy:

Effective and Targeted at College Students — (examples: combining cognitive-behavioral skills with norms clarification; brief motivational interventions; altering students’ expectations about the effects of alcohol)

Effective With General Populations and Could Be Applied to College Environments — (examples: enforcement of minimum drinking age laws; restrictions on alcohol retail outlet density, responsible beverage service policies; formation of campus and community coalitions)

Promising — (examples: reinstate Friday classes and exams and Saturday morning classes; expand alcohol-free dormitories; consistently enforced discipline for alcohol policy violations; awareness of personal liability issues; "Safe-Ride" programs; regulation of happy hours and sales)

Ineffective — (examples: interventions that rely entirely on providing information about problems related to risks from drinking)

"Another dominant theme that emerged from our work," says Reverend Malloy, "is the importance of science-based research in establishing alcohol policies and prevention programs. Although research alone will not solve the problem, it will point the way to solutions."

The Task Force’s Report urges expanded funding for studies of underage and excessive college drinking and calls on NIAAA to assume primary responsibility for:

Supporting the research community’s efforts to address existing knowledge gaps and alter the culture of drinking on campus;

Facilitating long-term, campus-community research aimed at preventing hazardous student drinking; and

Imparting what is known about the patterns of college drinking and the quality of current interventions to encourage college presidents, administrators, and other campus and community leaders to adopt policies and implement strategies based on research.

In addition to its main report, the Task Force’s findings and recommendations are available in the following formats:

Two Task Force panel reports — High-Risk Drinking in College: What We Know and What We Need to Learn and How to Reduce High-Risk College Drinking: Use Proven Strategies, Fill Research Gaps;

A handbook for college planners on implementing and evaluating alcohol prevention programs; and

Brochures for college and university presidents, student peer educators, and parents.

These materials are available on the Web at: They also may be ordered by calling NIAAA at 301-443-3860