- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 5, 2003

Binge drinking, a perennial problem on American college campuses, is a growing concern in other parts of the world as well, especially Europe.

Last month, the British Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit published a report that binge drinking is a growing problem, especially among young people in the United Kingdom.

Defining binge drinking as consuming the equivalent of four pints of beer by a man or three pints by a woman, the Interim Analytical Report for the National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy said 40 percent of men’s drinking sessions and 22 percent of women’s can be termed binge drinking.

The Strategy Unit also linked bingeing to up to 22,000 premature deaths each year, roughly 60 per day, and estimated the cost to the country at $33 billion a year.

Five days before the British report, students at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., learned of the death of a senior who authorities say had been drinking for more than 12 hours before he died.

According to Henry Wechsler — a Harvard researcher who last year published “Dying to Drink: Confronting Binge Drinking on College Campuses” — two of every five students at U.S. colleges regularly indulge in binge drinking.

Mr. Wechsler said such drinking is responsible for the death of about 14,000 students per year in the country — mainly from alcohol-related accidents.

In Europe, too, binge drinking is becoming more popular among young people.

In 1999, the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Drugs, conducted among about 95,000 10th-graders by the Swedish Council for Information on Alcohol and Other Drugs, found that binge drinking had increased by 21 percent between 1995 and 1999 to 55 percent in almost half of the 30 participating countries.

But while 40 percent of 10th-graders in the United States report consuming alcohol in an average 30-day period, 61 percent report doing so in Europe. However, this proportion varies among European countries, from 36 percent in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to 85 percent in Denmark.

Even in Western Europe, drinking habits differ among neighboring countries. With a pure-alcohol consumption of 9.1 quarts per capita a year in 2000, Britons drink less than most of their neighbors, at the head of which is Luxembourg, with 12.7 quarts, followed by Ireland, at 12.2 quarts.

However, the British drink more in one sitting. Among 15-year-olds in Britain, one in three admit to having been drunk at age 13 or younger, while among French and Italian 15-year-olds, one in 10 admits to the same.

The Strategy Unit’s report says this situation can be explained by the difference in drinking culture between northern and southern Europe.

It says the Mediterranean drinking culture is based on wine, especially as a regular part of the diet and mostly consumed in family settings. In these societies, there are “strong informal sanctions against public drunkenness.”

North European culture, the report said, is based on beer — mostly drunk in pubs, less frequently but more heavily. Drinking is an end in itself, and public drunkenness is tolerated, even expected.

“These characteristics are deeply rooted in culture, tradition and indeed climate,” said the report, and British drinking culture shares most of the characteristics revealed in northern European.

In February 2001, the World Health Organization held a European Ministerial Conference on Young People and Alcohol in Stockholm.

In her speech, then WHO Director General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland expressed concern about the worsening situation in Eastern Europe.

“While some progress has been made in reducing overall alcohol consumption in western parts of the European region, there are alarming signs of deteriorating drinking habits among young people across the whole region,” she said.

As in Western Europe and the United States, increased binge drinking among young people elsewhere can be partly explained by marketing strategies developed over several years by the alcohol industry.

“By mixing alcohol with fruit juices, energy drinks and premixed ‘alcopops,’ and by using advertising that focuses on youth lifestyle, sex, sports and fun, the large alcohol manufacturers are trying to establish a habit of drinking alcohol at a very young age,” Dr. Brundtland said.

The development of marketing techniques such as “buy one, get one free” or “buy one, get unlimited refills” also is seen as contributing to increasing binge drinking in Western societies.

According to the 1999 Harvard University School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, 47 percent of the U.S. student binge drinkers consume alcohol to get drunk.

Other main reasons cited for drinking: the high status associated with drinking, the culture of alcohol consumption on campus, peer pressure and academic stress.

In Japan, meanwhile, drinking among adolescents is reported to have increased in tandem with rapid economic growth during the past four decades. In a 1993 national survey, 55 percent of students ages 13 to 17 were found to drink to intoxication or unconsciousness.

Observers also worry about the situation in Australia and New Zealand. According to the 2003 Alcohol Awareness Survey, conducted for the Salvation Army by Roy Morgan, 22 percent of girls in those countries ages 14 and 17 and 19 percent of boys in that age group regularly binge drink.

An analysis of trends in three regions of the developing world — Asia, Central and South America, and sub-Saharan Africa — suggests that alcohol consumption there has increased with economic development and growing buying power, but most of the adult population does not drink regularly.

However, in her Stockholm speech, Dr. Brundtland worried about the new drinking behaviors in these countries. “Data from across the world suggest that a culture of sporadic binge drinking among young people may now be increasing also in developing countries,” she said.

Drinking games, buying rounds and binge drinking increasingly are reported in these cultures by international organizations that deal with alcohol and drug abuse.

In Africa, the consumption of large quantities of alcohol is more widespread among students with Western attitudes and tastes than among those who adhere more to traditional customs and lifestyles, according to the 2001 WHO Global Status Report.

Because Islam — which forbids alcohol consumption — is the dominant religion in all countries of the eastern Mediterranean, that region has relatively low levels of alcohol abuse, including among young people.

In Central and South America, studies point to an increase in drinking in Brazil, Chile and Mexico, especially among young women, according to the WHO report. In Brazil, according to a survey conducted in 1997, 30 percent of those between ages 10 and 18 had used alcohol to the point of intoxication.

But the lack of recent surveys in many countries, such as in India, renders difficult the task of evaluating binge drinking trends in developing countries.

As solutions, measures that reduce access to alcohol — such as imposing a minimum drinking age or restricting the purchase of alcohol — are often used, as are laws against drunk driving and restrictions on advertising.

But for the British government, as proposed in the report by the Strategy Unit, one of the ways to reduce the epidemic of binge drinking might be to lengthen the hours that pubs can remain open — they close 11 p.m. on weekends — to eliminate the rush to drink as much as possible before closing time.

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