Alcohol-Related Deaths among College Students Rising

Although colleges are currently attempting to curb excessive drinking on campuses, the number of alcohol-related unintentional injury deaths among college students has increased. Researchers from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) found that the number of deaths among students ages 18 to 24 rose from 1,440 in 1998 to 1,825 in 2005.

Analysis of drinking habits and driving habits of college students versus non-college students also found that those in college drank more and drove under the influence just as much, which lead the researchers to conclude that college students suffered alcohol-related deaths as often as non-college students.

Some experts see the data as evidence of failing efforts—especially the drinking age of 21—while others question some campus campaigns and wonder if they received enough money and support.

“I’m sure there are some universities where they can say, ‘We are making progress,’ but if you look at the nation as a whole, the proportion of college students who said they engage in binge drinking increased,” said Ralph Hingson, author of the study and director of the division of epidemiology and prevention research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “It looks like there have been increases, not decreases.”

However, James Turner, dean of the department of student health at the University of Virginia, says that college have been making considerable progress in curbing binge drinking over the past few years, especially at his own institution. A 2008 study conducted at the University of Virginia showed that a campaign that corrected misperceptions about drinking helped reduce the number of alcohol-related negative consequences, such as missing class and having unprotected sex.

Last fall, former Middlebury College president John McCardell drafted the Amethyst Initiative, which discussed lowering the drinking age of 21. To date, the document has gathered more than 130 college officials’ signatures. “It’s very hard to celebrate success when one sees binge drinking increasing from 41.7 to 44.7 percent of the population in the near term,” McCardell said, “and it’s hard for me to say that a law that says you may not drink until you’re 21 can be deemed successful.”

The Amethyst Initiative claims that lowering the legal age—along with providing safety education—will decrease the rate of binge drinking. However, NIAAA’s study suggested that binge drinking among 21- to 24-year-olds was significantly higher than among 18- to 20-year-olds. Hingson said that there is a “preponderance of evidence” to suggest that binge drinking declined among underage students when the national drinking age rose to 21 in 1984.

Drew Hunter, president of the BACCHUS Network, a nationwide health and safety organization, said the increased number of drinking-related injury deaths may have resulted from a decrease in campus funding and staffing needed to address alcohol abuse issues.

“Campuses make different progress at different times,” Hunter said. “If we’re going to get serious about combating this, we need to create a national strategy to make sure the funds and resources to address this problem broadly are in place. Unfortunately, it just has not been a budget priority nationally in some time.”

Hingson says he believes that curbing underage drinking is possible, but that universities need to carry out programs correctly. “Twenty-five years ago, people thought we would never be able to reduce drinking and driving, but population deaths have been cut in half,” Hingson said. “It can be done on alcohol-related topics if they work with communities where they are located, if they implement tested interventions and if they make sure they do rigorous evaluations of implemented programs.”