How to Stop Underage Binge Drinking
Training bartenders and banning two-for-one sales can help limit underage drinking in high school and college students. Here's what you should know.
Downing five or more alcoholic drinks at a time, or binging, is common on college campuses. More than 27 percent of students confess they’ve done it during the past month. About 13 percent meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder, the term for what used to be called alcoholism.
While the problem is smaller than it was 35 years ago, you don’t want your child falling into the pattern. Too many binge drinkers get worse grades, end up with rap sheets, commit booze-fueled rape, and die behind the wheel.
According to studies cited by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcohol is tied to more than 1,500 student deaths each year. Almost 700,000 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking. About one in five college women experience sexual assault during their college years, most often with alcohol involved.
Lots of people confess that they’ve been too drunk to even know if they consented to sex. About a quarter of students say their drinking affects their academic performance.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Alcohol Does More Harm than Heroin and Crack
To help colleges and states tackle the problem, the NIAAA has created a website that ranks the effectiveness of a variety of possible solutions.
At the top of the list:
- Enforce the drinking age and promote compliance. One approach: Recruit 21-year-olds to work as undercover agents and give store clerks who asked for ID a congratulatory letter and gift certificate reward and a reminder if they failed. The next step: Send in underage buyers and punish stores and clerks that sell them alcohol. Data from an Oregon statewide compliance check program found that the percentage of cases of sales to minors dropped from 28 percent to 17 percent during a 4-year study. Other research has confirmed the appropriate drinking age is 21; it may reduce deaths from suicide and traffic accidents.
- Establish minimum prices for a drink.
- Increase alcohol tax. One study estimated that an extra 25 cent tax per drink would cut heavy drinking by 11 percent.
- Restrict happy-hours and price cuts.
- Keep Sunday bans. There’s evidence they do reduce overdrinking.
- Restrictions on hours of sales also help, some data shows.
One-on-one education can also work. For example, one small study tested the effect of a guided meditation practice an hour a week for a month. Meditators had 2.6 fewer binges on average than a control group. They didn’t plan on giving up drinking, but they weren’t as likely to go overboard, presumably because they had developed more awareness of their actions.
The NIAAA list of successful interventions includes cognitive behavioral therapy programs targeted at problem drinkers. They provide the facts about addiction and train students over several group meetings to identify their drinking triggers and practice turning down drinks.
One research-backed technique doesn’t require meetings. Students get emails with a chart and text comparing their self-reported drinking to their peers. Evidently, some kids don’t realize that other students drink much less.
A third way to create awareness: Ask students to fill out an online questionnaire about their drinking, then monitor their drinking for two weeks and meet with a counsellor to discuss their scores. One way or another, the hope is that seeing the facts while sober is, well, sobering.
Other policies you’d think would help have had mixed results, or they haven’t been studied thoroughly. They include banning alcohol at campus social events, requiring students to attend Friday morning classes, creating alcohol-free dorms, running “party patrols,” and banning home delivery.
May 02, 2023
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA and Janet O'Dell, RN