College binge drinking brings tragedy

Friday, October 1, 2004



HOUSTON - If you're the parent of a college-age child — or, for that matter, any adult who cares deeply about kids — the news that a second Colorado student may have died of alcohol poisoning comes as a sharp reminder of America's biggest drug problem.

Sure, we hear a lot about the new boutique pills making the rounds of nightclubs, but binge drinking is far more pervasive and dangerous. It's picking off our youths and harming their future. In fact, more students will die of alcohol-related causes this year — about 1,400 — than U.S. troops have perished in Iraq. An additional 500,000 will suffer injuries.

Just in the past three weeks, two students have been found dead in fraternity houses after a night of partying. The first, Samantha Spady, was a sophomore business major at Colorado State. The cause of death for the second, a freshman at the University of Colorado in Boulder, has not been released, but alcohol is suspected.

Sadly, these incidents aren't uncommon. In May, a California State University President's Scholar lapsed into a coma after a night of drinking on his 21st birthday. In March, another 21-year-old died of alcohol poisoning after celebrating his birthday, as did a college student in California during an off-campus drinking contest. In Miami, two college students died in the 2001-2002 school year. And those are just the deaths that made headlines.

For parents, worry
For plenty of parents, paying for tuition may be the least of their worries. The problem of alcohol consumption — anything from a few beers to one-after-another shots of tequila — is like campus kudzu: everywhere and hard to get rid of. There aren't any loans or federal grants to ease the burden.

I swallowed hard when I heard the news of the Colorado students. Indeed, the damage done by fraternity hazing, drinking games and student parties stretches far beyond the narrow perimeters of a college campus and into the homes of the grieving families left behind. How does one ever recover from such a tragedy?

Studies of the crisis abound. The latest, released earlier this month, concluded that binge drinking was worse than expected. College students may down as many as 24 alcoholic drinks in a row, according to the report funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (Other research had defined binge drinking as having five or more drinks in a row, and maybe more.)

Imagine: Two dozen! The most quoted study, one conducted by the Harvard University School of Public Health, showed that 51 percent of college men and 40 percent of women had engaged in binge drinking within two weeks of the survey. More than half did this frequently. The consequences were dire, from vehicular deaths to serious injuries to unprotected sex to suicide.

Solutions elusive

I'm stumped at offering solutions. Already, many colleges have instituted everything from zero-tolerance policies to mandatory online classes. Yet, as the everybody-does-it mentality persists, the problem grows.

The campus alcohol culture is hard to beat, and I suspect it will require more than education. Being drunk will have to lose its glamour. In the end, the courage to resist peer pressure, the strength to say a resounding no, is a personal choice. It is one fostered in a child's early years and nurtured through adolescence. It is one that needs constant care from parents and community support.

If the student arrives on campus without the practice of saying no ahead of time, college life certainly won't teach him how.

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