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October 30, 2020

Is Binge Drinking in College Normal?


For years, binge drinking in college was normalized as a rite of passage. We’ve all seen the movies that romanticize attending parties and drinking in college. Young adults finally free from their parents’ watching eyes, experimenting with all that life has to offer, especially alcohol.  However, binge drinking in college students has graduated from a rite of passage to a public health problem. In one national survey, almost 55 percent of college students drank alcohol in the previous month, with more than one third admitting to binge drinking in that same time period.  Binge drinking in college students increases the risks for blackouts, alcohol poisoning, sexual assaults, sexually transmitted diseases, poor academic performance, and development of alcohol use disorder. 

Binge Drinking Defined

Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that elevates the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g.dL; this typically occurs after four drinks for women and five drinks for men within about 2 hours.  What’s important to note here is how we define a drink.  A standard serving of alcohol contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol and is either:

  • 12 ounces of regular beer
  • 8-9 ounces of malt liquor
  • 5 ounces of wine, OR
  • 1.5 ounces shot of distilled spirits such as rum, vodka, tequila, whiskey, etc. 

If you take a look at glasses, you’ll quickly see how today’s wine, beer, and drink glasses are not made with those standard drink sizes in mind. Today’s wine glasses hold 20 ounces, which translates to 75% of a 750-milliliter wine bottle or four standard servings of alcohol. Many beer glasses hold 20 ounces or more of beer, which translates to 1.75 standard servings of beer.  Mixed drinks are even murkier territory; a standard margarita contains 2 ounces of distilled liquor while a long island iced tea contains 5 ounces of distilled liquor.  It’s easy to see how quickly binge drinking can occur when we look at how drinks are served. 

When Binge Drinking Turns Into Addiction

While binge drinking is of concern and can have serious consequences, not all binge drinkers suffer from addiction. What can be difficult for many to understand is that the transition from binge drinker to addict or alcoholic is filled with shades of grey.  There is often not a particular moment in time that can be identified as the moment an individual went from being a binge drinker to a person with alcohol use disorder (AUD). However, the regularity and frequency of binge drinking may point to more of a problem.  

In 2017, nearly ten percent of college students admitted to heavy alcohol use within the previous month.  Risk factors for developing AUD include age at which drinking begins, genetic make-up, and individual life experiences.  Community attitudes around drinking and the normalization of binge drinking can also lead to the development of AUD. 

Binge drinking does involve a pattern and it seems that when the pattern continues into heavy drinking regardless of the consequences, the individual is crossing over into the AUD territory.  In 2017, nearly ten percent of college students admitted to heavy alcohol use within the previous month. Additionally, regular alcohol use in college may open the door to the use of drugs and a possible drug addiction.  If the use of alcohol and drugs continues regularly regardless of academic, physical and social consequences, the time may have arrived to seek treatment. 

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