By: Elysia L. Richardson

College drinking culture can be numbing, dangerous, and deadly.

It’s numbing because watching someone “get wasted,” or have too much to drink, raises few eyebrows and is considered nothing out of the ordinary in some circles.

It’s dangerous because high-risk drinking is unhealthy for the drinker. Poor drinking habits can bring on health problems such as heart disease, liver disease, cancer, and brain damage, among many others, and psychiatric problems.

And, it’s deadly, because alcohol-impaired driving or accidents is unsafe and often takes lives. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, fatalities in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes increased by 1.7 percent (10,320 to 10,497 fatalities) from 2015 to 2016.

But there’s another consequence of college drinking culture—one that few think about. For some people, excessive drinking habits will stick around and create challenges that linger long after college ends.

Binge drinking or drinking heavily during those college-age years can be the beginning of what is known as an alcohol use disorder (AUD). This condition is “a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using,” as defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

About 6.2 percent or 15.1 million adults in the United States ages 18 and older had AUD in 2015,” according to the NIAAA. AUDs are on a spectrum and range from mild to severe.

What Is Binge Drinking?

The NIAAA defines binge drinking as “a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically occurs after four drinks for women and five drinks for men—in about two hours.” According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a BAC of .08 g/dL is considered to be legally impaired in all 50 U.S. states.

The Substance Abuse on Mental Health Services Administration defines binge drinking as five or more alcoholic drinks for males and four or more drinks for females on the same occasion on at least one day in the past month. “The same occasion” could mean at the same time or within a couple of hours of each other.

According to the results of the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 65.3 million people aged 12 or older were binge alcohol users in the past 30 days in 2016. The survey found that “an estimated 38.4 percent of young adults aged 18 to 25 were binge alcohol users in the past month,” which corresponds to about 13.3 million young adults.

“Stated another way, about 2 out of 5 young adults in 2016 were current binge alcohol users,” the report said.

Furthermore, approximately 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for AUD, according to data cited by the NIAAA.

Why Is Drinking So Popular on College Campuses?

College drinking is a popular pastime among students and is commonly considered a part of the “college experience.” As a New York Times article puts it, “Drinking is so central to students’ expectations of college that they will fight to see it as a basic right.”

The legal drinking age in the United States is 21, so there is a great deal of underage drinking going on at colleges and universities. That still does not deter young people from seeking out alcohol. Some people use alcohol as a way to connect with their peers and establish ties to them. Sharing a pitcher of beer or downing a couple of shots can help “break the ice,” so to speak, especially in a setting where people are away from family, friends, and familiar surroundings.

Visiting the neighborhood bar or a popular hangout for an alcoholic beverage gives young people something to do. It may become a form of entertainment for people who are bored or need an outlet away from classes. Some consider alcohol the “life of the party,” and they make sure it appears at social gatherings held on or off-campus. Getting tipsy or getting flat-out drunk has been normalized in a college drinking culture that also doubles as a lifestyle for many participants.

Alcohol use helps some people cope with emotions that arise in these scenarios, such as anxiety and depression. But turning to alcohol to process or numb these feelings can lead to problematic drinking habits that aren’t easy to leave behind.

People have their reasons for drinking alcohol, and not everyone will struggle with alcoholism just because they drink beer, wine, or something harder. However, for others, one drink or even a few will be the start of problematic alcohol use.

Another reason it is difficult to discourage alcohol use among college students is that it is a legal substance, which is why there is widespread hesitation to think of it as a drug or treat it as one. However, it is a drug; a widely used and easily accessible, addictive one—and it remains one of the top threats and most addictive drugs out there, according to officials.

Drinking After College: Who’s Doing It?

Data show that binge drinking is most common among younger adults age 18-34 years, but also across the lifespan.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, epidemiologists say binge drinking is a pattern that begins in college, and that, for many people, it continues through early adulthood. After-work happy hours and Bring Your Own Beer/Beverage (BYOB) promotions become popular among young adult workers who are trying to balance working and having a career, managing a household that may include raising a family, and maintaining a social life.

More U.S. adults are drinking to a point where they are endangering their health. This population includes women, minorities, and older adults, National Public Radio reports, highlighting research published in JAMA Psychiatry.

Binge drinking among men has twice the prevalence of women, data show, but the gender gap hints that it is narrowing. Alcohol consumption among women has increased. Some attribute the change to a shift in social norms around women who drink as well as stress, according to NPR.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey conducted between 2011 and 2013 indicated that 53.6 percent of women ages 18 to 44 were drinking, and that 18.2 percent were binge drinking.

Makers, a storytelling platform for women, highlights that as women entered the workforce in larger numbers, their social habits began to mirror their male counterparts. That includes drinking habits.

“Educated women in high-pressure jobs are more likely to drink, but it’s hard to untangle whether it’s because they’re trying to keep pace with their office drinking culture, looking for fun and relief from demanding jobs, or because they have the income to enjoy a few expensive cocktails (or some combination thereof),” it writes.

Makers also cites CDC data showing that “74 percent of women with a master’s degree or higher drink, compared to just 34 percent of those without a diploma. And women who make $60,000 per year or more drink 24 percent more than those who made between $40,000 and $60,000 a year.”

The report also includes research that working long hours may be a contributor to high-risk drinking.

Know What Counts as a Drink

The CDC says binge drinking is a serious but preventable health problem.

“Preventable” is the keyword.

Responsible drinking starts with knowing what it is. The NIAAA advises college students and everyone who consumes alcohol to track the number of alcoholic drinks they consume in a given period. Before this can be done effectively, it’s important to know what counts as one drink.

According to the NIAAA, “In the United States, a standard drink is one that contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol, which is found in:

  • 12 ounces of beer with 5 percent alcohol content
  • 5 ounces of wine with 12 percent alcohol content
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits with 40 percent alcohol content

NIAAA cautions these are only guidelines and that they may not reflect customary serving sizes.

“A large cup of beer, an overpoured glass of wine, or a single mixed drink could contain much more alcohol than a standard drink.” Alcohol content can also vary considerably within different kinds of beverages, it writes, among them beer, wine, and distilled spirits.

Get Help for Alcohol Misuse, Abuse Now

Binge-drinking habits that follow drinkers after they have received their degrees can start as early as the first few weeks of college. According to the NIAAA, the first six weeks of a college student’s freshman year are a vulnerable time for heavy drinking and alcohol-related consequences. Student expectations and social pressures at the beginning of the academic year could lead to alcohol use, it says.

Some people will phase out of college binge drinking, but some won’t, and that makes it easier for high-risk or excessive drinking to turn into an alcohol use disorder.

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol use or is abusing alcohol, we can help. Call Delphi Behavioral Health Group at 844-899-5777 now to start your search for a treatment facility and get help for binge-drinking or an alcohol use disorder now.