- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2006

The remedy for rampant drinking at American colleges? It could be a crash course in the art of sensible social drinking, reminiscent of the old-fashioned, formal cocktail hour — often a showcase for decorum.

“My belief is that we have to face the fact that a certain percentage of college students will drink. So, what can we do to reduce the likelihood of them getting into trouble?” asked Steve Benton, a psychology professor at Kansas State University who has studied the negative patterns of collegiate boozing.

“Students who tend to have attitudes that make them greater risk takers are more likely to get into trouble when drinking,” Mr. Benton said. “Even when controlling the amount of alcohol, it’s not how much you drink that affects the amount of trouble, but how risky you are.”

Indeed, social drinking has devolved into a full-contact sport among party-hearty students, even on campuses that have banned alcohol. The students simply go off-campus to imbibe, often resorting to coarse drinking games such as “bar golf,” which sends them to different establishments, brandishing a scorecard to record how many gulps it took to polish off a beer.

The statistics resulting from such behaviors are sobering.

A 2005 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that 1,700 college students from age 18 to 24 die every year, either from alcohol poisoning or alcohol-related injuries. Another 599,000 students are unintentionally injured while intoxicated and another 696,000 are assaulted — by fellow students who were also drinking. More than two million students have driven drunk — and 88 percent of the nation’s entire collegiate population have tried alcohol.

Mr. Benton is advising students to adopt “self-protective behavior,” which resembles some of the advice dispensed to young folks in a previous age.

His recommendations to students: limit their number of drinks, limit money spent on alcohol, drink with friends, eat food before drinking, pace drinks over many hours, pour sensibly sized drinks and drop the risky attitude.

Etiquette guides for young men and students from manners maven Emily Post have deemed unseemly drinking as “immature behavior,” particularly advising thirsty males to be wary of boisterous counterparts.

“Nurse that drink slowly … there is no imperative saying you have to join in,” notes “Essential Manners for Men” by Peter Post, Emily’s great-grandson.

Mr. Benton is particularly concerned about masculine proclivities.

“We know that males tend to be heavier drinkers than females,” he said. “The more you drink, the more you get into trouble. We found that the protective strategies are especially beneficial to male students, because they drink more than females, as well as to students who have six or more drinks.”

It’s the “low risk” attitude he hopes to foster. Mr. Benton’s five-year study was funded by the Kansas Health Foundation and will be presented to the American Psychological Association in August. Other campuses, in the meantime, are also exploring ways to keep their young charges in check.

“Social drinking is the consumption of alcohol without reaching the point of being drunk. It is drinking in a safe, legal and responsible manner, allowing you to socialize,” notes an advisory to Stanford University students, which recommends a three-drink limit.

Still, the definition of acceptable social drinking is still a work in progress. A 2004 study by the University of California at San Francisco found that “heavy” social drinking — as few as three drinks a day — can ultimately lead to brain damage.

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