Binge Drinking: The Anatomy of an Epidemic. Presented by Jim Orcutt Florida State University

Binge Drinking: The Anatomy of an Epidemic Presented by Jim Orcutt Florida State University 2006 What is Binge Drinking? The Traditional Conception From the mid-19 th century throughout most of the 20
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Binge Drinking: The Anatomy of an Epidemic Presented by Jim Orcutt Florida State University 2006 What is Binge Drinking? The Traditional Conception From the mid-19 th century throughout most of the 20 th century, the notion of binge drinking or going on a binge referred to episodes of excessive drinking which would end only when the drinker passed out or exhausted his or her supply of alcohol. A closely related term, going on a bender, described occasions where a drinker would remain intoxicated for days, often forgetting what had happened during the bout of drinking. In its traditional usage, the term binge drinking connoted a pattern of heavy, episodic consumption that was symptomatic of alcoholism and well outside the normal limits of social drinking. What is Binge Drinking? The Harvard 5/4 Conception In a 1994 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Henry Wechsler and his colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health applied a new definition of binge drinking in their College Alcohol Study. Using data from a national survey of college students, Wechsler et al. classified male respondents as binge drinkers if they had 5 or more drinks in a row on a single occasion within the past two weeks. Female respondents were classified as binge drinkers if they had 4 or more drinks in a row. This survey measure of binge drinking has come to be known as the 5/4 definition. Dangers of Binge Drinking: Results from Wechsler et al. Wechsler et al. (1994:1672) summarized their dramatic findings about the extent and seriousness of binge drinking among college students as follows: Tracking the Epidemic: Results of Later Surveys Wechsler et al. conducted several subsequent surveys of college students and reported new findings indicating that the rate of frequent binge drinking increased during the late 1990s. This and other interesting results are shown in the following table from a 2000 report on the College Alcohol Study: Perhaps the most novel contribution of the Harvard CAS is evidence on second-hand effects of others binge drinking, an idea which builds upon the earlier conception of second-hand smoke as a threat to public health. This table from the 2000 CAS monograph documents the different rates of secondhand effects at schools that have low versus high proportions of binge drinkers. It is worth noting that (1) these schools may differ in other ways than their drinking patterns and (2) ecological evidence such as this cannot pin-point whether binge drinkers per se were responsible for these second-hand effects. Second-Hand Bingeing: A Threat to Public Health? The work of Wechsler et al. had an immediate influence on media coverage of drinking problems. This story, which appeared in Newsweek in 1998 (June 15), highlighted the tragic story of a promising MIT student who died after reaching a BAC of 0.41 a lethal dose of alcohol. This sad case exemplifies the kind of horror story that media workers use to put a human face on a growing crisis. Media Coverage of Binge Drinking: Horror Stories The Newsweek Dying for a Drink article also included findings from the CAS that documented how widespread and out of control the problem of binge drinking had become on college campuses. Note that this table only refers to students who binge and does not remind the reader of the rather liberal 5/4 definition of the bingeing phenomenon. Perhaps inspired by this Newsweek article, Wechsler titled his own 2002 book on binge drinking, Dying to Drink. Media Coverage of Binge Drinking: Social Facts The Problem Becomes a Crisis: Fear of Binge Drinking Each wave of results from the College Alcohol Study received a great deal of attention in national, local, and college media. One consequence of this publicity was widespread concern among parents, higher education administrators, and other audiences about a serious and growing problem on college campuses. For instance, in 2001 a survey conducted by the American Medical association yielded some striking findings about the fear of binge drinking among parents. A nationwide survey by the American Medical Association released Wednesday shows college binge drinking is among parents top concerns. Of the parents surveyed, 95 percent said excessive drinking is a serious threat to their children and 85 percent said easy access to alcohol in college communities contributes to the problem. Counter-reactions to the Problem of Binge Drinking The Harvard 5/4 conception and dramatic media coverage of binge drinking eventually became targets of criticism by alcohol researchers, educators, and even the mass media. A headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education in September 8, 2000 announced that The Latest War on Binge Drinking Is Against the Term Itself. Intense media coverage of the binge drinking problem even became the subject of lampoons in the editorial cartoons, as shown in the following strip by the conservative cartoonist, Bruce Tinsley: Back to the Traditional Conception of Binge Drinking Scientific concern about the 5/4 definition prompted the editors of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs to adopt a policy requiring that the term binge drinking only to describe an extended period of time (usually two or more days) during which a person repeatedly administers alcohol to the point of intoxication, and gives up his/her usual activities and obligations to use the substances. As for the 5/4 definition, this short-run pattern of alcohol consumption could be termed heavy use or heavy episodic drinking but not as a binge. At least when he publishes in this particular journal, even Henry Wechsler no longer uses the concept of binge drinking.
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