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    Grappling with binges

    As spring breakers throng bars, a study shows a failure to curb drinking at colleges.

    By LEONORA LaPETER
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 25, 2002


    photo
    [Times photo: Kinfay Moroti]
    On her first night of spring break, Sarah Kilinger, a 23-year-old University of Buffalo senior, downs a drink with vodka while partying in Clearwater. A survey found that seven in 10 traditional college students are binge drinkers.
    CLEARWATER BEACH --Jordan Hill is minutes away from his first cranberry and vodka of the day. It's about 3 p.m. on a Thursday, and Hill, a University of Kentucky college student on spring break, is tossing a Frisbee with his college buddy on the beach.

    He says he has downed quite a few alcoholic beverages every day of his week off, and so what? He's on vacation. But Hill, a husky 22-year-old who had the tips of his stubbly blond hair bleached blond here this week, says he also drinks like this when he's back on campus in Lexington studying computer science.

    And that makes him one of many students -- about 44 percent -- who binge drink at colleges across the country, according to a study released today by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health.

    That figure from the study of 10,000 students at 119 four-year colleges is similar to results in 1993, 1995 and 1997.

    Which shows that efforts to combat the phenomenon on college campuses have so far failed.

    "This, to us, indicates that there are very strong forces that continue to support this level of drinking on campus, and those factors need to be addressed in the policies that colleges take," said Henry Weschler, the main investigator on the survey and director of the College of Alcohol Studies at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

    The survey found that seven in 10 traditional college students -- 18- to 23-year-olds who do not live with their parents -- are binge drinkers. About 75 percent of all students who live at fraternities and sororities were classified as binge drinkers.

    Binge drinkers are identified as men who down five or more drinks in a row -- and women who have four or more drinks in a row -- in the previous two weeks. Weschler said the findings are surprising given some of the survey's other results: 19 percent fewer college students reported they engaged in binge drinking in high school; 25 percent fewer students said they were members of fraternities and sororities; and 65 percent more students were living in substance-free housing.

    He said universities are too focused on educating and punishing problem drinkers rather than changing the environment that promotes binge drinking.

    Officials at several Florida colleges said they have tried to make changes, but it's difficult at best.

    The survey did not break down the results for specific colleges or states, because Weschler said it would be unfair to label only those schools that participated in the study as having problems with binge drinking.

    In 1999, the Princeton Review, a college directory not associated with Princeton University, ranked Florida State University the nation's No. 1 partying school, followed by the University of Florida.

    The following year, the now-defunct state Board of Regents ordered Florida's 10 universities to create a policy for notifying parents of underage students who use alcohol or drugs. Since then, the colleges and universities have formed a task force and taken steps to combat binge drinking.

    Several new policies are in place, but more are to come. Many colleges now notify parents if students are arrested or transferred to emergency rooms for drinking. Most also have education programs and alternatives, such as movies, bands or free food at student unions on weekend nights.

    At the University of Florida, the bars now close at 2 a.m. rather than 4 a.m., and students who leave football games to drink are not allowed to return to the stadium. The university also developed a policy prohibiting bars and restaurants from covering the campus with beer specials fliers.

    But efforts to eliminate the culture of binge drinking at bars have proved less effective.

    Tavis Glassman, coordinator of the campus alcohol and drug resource center at UF, said a Gainesville city committee that looked into banning beer specials, such as Ladies' Night and Beat the Clock, found it had no power.

    "The Legislature would have to make a state law saying no Ladies' Night or no Beat the Clock," he said.

    At Florida State University, officials have worked with bar owners to curtail the specials.

    "The establishments want to work with us, but we've got to get everybody to agree to it," said Larry Abele, provost at FSU. "Their view is if we do it and the competition doesn't, what's going to happen. I think the city and the county have to come together to put limits out there."

    FSU received a $700,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to address bingeing.

    Abele acknowledged that binge drinking is a problem, but he said it's still too early to tell whether the university's efforts have had an impact. Most schools, he said, didn't start aggressively pursuing the problem until 1999.

    "College drinking is a much larger problem than people imagine," said Mark Goldman, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida who is studying alcohol use at colleges as part of a national task force. "People tend to do this nudge, nudge, wink, wink, every younger generation goes through it. But it's a real problem, something that needs to have more done about it."

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