Binge drinking is defined as the consumption of 5 or more alcoholic beverages at one time, for an adult male, and 4 or more for an adult female, at least once during the preceding two-week period. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) adds that binge drinking includes a person reaching a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of 0.08 or higher, which usually occurs when four or five drinks are consumed within two hours.
The NIAAA reports that one in every six adults in the United States binge drinks around four times every month, consuming an average of eight drinks per binge.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report the following statistics on binge drinking:
- Of all adults in the U.S. who drink excessively, approximately 92% have engaged in binge drinking within the last 30 days.
- Over 50% of all alcohol consumption in the U.S. is done in a binge drinking manner.
- Men report binge drinking twice as often as women.
- Binge drinkers admit to alcohol-impaired or drunk driving 14 times more than those who do not binge drink.
- Even though binge drinking is most common in the 18-34 age bracket (binge drinking four times each month), those who are 65 and older actually binge drink more often, estimated at five or six times each month.
- Income affects binge drinking rates: In households making at least $75,000, binge drinking is much more prevalent than in households earning a lower income.
- While binge drinking is most often associated with college students, 70% of all binge episodes actually occur among people aged 26 years and older.
- 67% of male sexual aggressors, and 50% of their victims, had been drinking at the time of the attack and sexual assault.
Alcohol is a dangerous drug, the effects of which are greatly overlooked. Drinking to the point of intoxication, binge drinking, and reaching the 0.08 BAC limit are exposing a person to great physical damage, disturbances in mental health, financial despair, strained relationships, loss of work, failure in school or other professional attempts, and legal ramifications.
Binge drinking as a pattern of alcohol consumption will progress to these dangerous levels when changes are not made.
Race is a factor in how often someone binge drinks. Whether the influence is based on genetics or on cultural norms, race does play a part in binge drinking habits.
Members of the Caucasian (white, non-Hispanic) race have the most incidences of binge drinking at 43.8%, followed by members of the Native American race at 40.6%, those who are any part Hispanic at 31.3%, people who are any part Asian at 22.7%, and members of the African-American, or black, race at 22.5%.
Another factor is age. People under the age of 21 report a higher amount of binge drinking than those older than 21. Young people who consume large quantities of alcohol often face serious consequences related to their binge drinking behaviors. Increased involvement in property damage, problems with law enforcement, poor performance in or absence from school or at work, incidents of physical injury, cases of sexual assault, engaging in risky sexual activity, and contracting a sexually transmitted disease are all likely when binge drinking.
Additional factors associated with binge drinking include: heredity, perception of peer alcohol consumption, personal perception of drinking, history of binge drinking, social affiliations, and peer alcohol usage. These factors contribute to the likelihood of heavy alcohol abuse.
College Binge Drinking
On several college campuses, 70% of all students engage in binge drinking behaviors. Nationwide, 40% of male college students, and 31% of female college students, report binge drinking within the 2 weeks prior to being surveyed. Additionally, about 90% of all alcohol consumption by anyone under the legal drinking age of 21 is done so in a binge drinking fashion.
Binge drinking contributes to 1,400 deaths, 500,000 injuries, and 70,000 incidents of unwilling sexual assault annually on college campuses throughout the United States.
Binge drinking is disconcerting, not only for the potential harm to the drinker, but also for the potential harm to other people. Deadly car crashes, late night interruptions, physical and sexual assaults, and emotional abuse are just some of the ways a person who has been consuming large amounts of alcohol can affect others.
Binge drinking is even more prevalent among members of the Greek system and among student athletes than any other group of college students.
The College Alcohol Survey (CSA) of the School of Public Health studied college binge drinking and used a few different criteria to determine abuse of alcohol among college students and the formation of dependence upon alcohol while enrolled in college.
Examples of criteria used to determine alcohol abuse:
- Experiencing hazardous situations (physical, emotional, mental)
- Alcohol related school problems
- Interpersonal problems
- Legal problems
- Continuing to binge drink after a consequence has occurred
Examples of criteria used to determine dependence on alcohol:
- Spending excessive time engaged in drinking related activities
- Uncontrollable drinking (consuming more than planned or desired)
- Symptoms of high tolerance (needing more alcohol to feel the same effects)
- Symptoms of withdrawal when drinking stops
Because the college age bracket often think of themselves as too young to have a problem with alcohol, college students who binge drink rarely seek treatment for their dependence on or abuse of alcohol. This erroneous mentality contributes to the high rates of death, assault, and injury directly related to binge drinking on college campuses each year.
Treatment, counseling, and support groups, including involvement in a 12 Step Program, are extremely beneficial to a drinker who regularly binge drinks. In some cases, a college student need an intervention, at which point his or her family steps in to encourage abstinence and formal treatment for alcohol abuse.
If you or someone you love is binge drinking in college, intervening before alcohol abuse progresses to addiction can be the difference between a life-long battle with alcohol and steps taken now to stop that progression.
Alcohol & The Human Body
A 23-year-old college peer counselor offers his perspective on binge drinking:
It’s no mystery why guys in college fraternities, many of whom don’t have all that much money, still come up with plenty of money to have outrageous amounts of alcohol and let any woman in for free. The whole point is they’re setting up an environment whereby people are going to get more drunk. Women’s inhibitions and a guy’s inhibitions are going to get lowered.
The desire to get drunk and to lower inhibitions does not seem like a problem: “it’s what all college kids do.” The truth is, college students do not understand what alcohol is actually doing to their bodies and brains when consumed in excess.
Alcohol is essentially a poison to the human body and brain. When alcohol enters the body, an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase is produced to counteract the harmful substance. The body starts working immediately to break down alcohol before it can reach the bloodstream.
The alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme is used to turn alcohol into acetaldehyde, which is toxic to the digestive system, and most importantly, to the the liver. From there, the use of the acetaldehyde dehydrogenase enzyme breaks acetaldehyde down into acetic acid, which can then be oxidized into carbon dioxide and into water.
When alcohol is consumed in a binge drinking manner, the body does not have time to break down enough of the alcohol to prevent dangerous intoxication. A binge drinker’s Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) can reach such high levels that blackouts (periods where nothing is remembered even though the person is conscious), alcohol poisoning, and overdose death have no choice but to occur. The body and the brain do not know another way to handle this much alcohol in its system.
The CDC reports that binge drinking creates the following physical risks:
- Unintentional injuries (e.g., car crashes, falls, burns, drowning)
- Intentional injuries (e.g., firearm injuries, sexual assault, domestic violence)
- Alcohol poisoning
- Sexually transmitted diseases
- Unintended pregnancy
- Children born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
- High blood pressure, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases
- Liver disease
- Neurological damage
- Sexual dysfunction
- Poor control of diabetes
Alcohol Use, Abuse, & Addiction
With alcohol I was out of control because I would drink to the point where I didn’t know what I was doing, which made it easier for the man to do whatever he wanted and my not realizing it until the next day or the next morning when I woke up and didn’t have any recollection of what happened.
Sadly, this girl’s story is all too common among college students who engage in binge drinking. Thousands of college girls end up in unwanted sexual situations that lead to emotional damage, unplanned pregnancies, and unknown sexually transmitted diseases (STD).
For men, what seems like consensual sex may not actually be a fully-conscious partner. Contracting an STD, getting a girl pregnant, or being accused of rape serve as very real consequences, equally as detrimental to his future as those of a female binge drinker.
When binge drinking continues, even after an adverse life consequence has occurred because of the person’s drinking, alcohol use has reached the point of abuse.
A 15-year-old high school dropout, engaged in alcohol abuse, continued to drink after a life consequence:
I always got Bs and then my grades dropped down to Ds, and then I started failing my classes, and I skipped school, and I got suspended all the time for that when I got caught. I’d skip school and I’d go get drunk, or we’d just skip it because we were always drunk.
When alcohol abuse continues, despite even greater life consequences, plus a loss of control over drinking, an obsession with drinking, a denial of any problem with alcohol, and any effort to stop drinking ending in a binge occurs, abuse has progressed to addiction.
10% to 12% of the total 140 million drinkers in the United States have reached the point of alcoholism. This means that 14 to 17 million people are currently addicted to alcohol.
Alcoholism is an addiction to alcohol. Although legal, alcohol is no less addicting or damaging than illicit drugs like cocaine, heroin, and prescription painkillers. Life consequences are just as likely, and long-term damage is equally inevitable.
An indication of addiction is the presence of withdrawal symptoms when drinking stops.
A 32-year-old recovering female alcoholic shares her experience with alcohol withdrawal:
Your body is going through so many changes, you can hardly breathe; you’re shaking. A hangover, yeah, you might be sick for a couple of hours. That’s different than withdrawals; but with withdrawals, it will kill you.
Generally, within 24 hours of cessation from alcohol, the following symptoms occur:
- Rapid pulse
- Increased body temperature
- Hand tremors
- Nausea or vomiting
- Tachycardia (irregular heartbeat)
- Transient visual, tactile, or auditory hallucinations and illusions
- Psychomotor agitation
- Grand mal seizures
- Delirium tremens
When a binge drinker experiences any of these symptoms, withdrawal cannot be done safely without medical attention. Alcohol withdrawal can be fatal and must take place in a formal detoxification treatment center where professional staff continuously monitor each client’s progress.
How Alcoholism Can Begin
I was a city kid and was pretty much a standard rite of passage when you’re 12, 13, or 14 to, you know, one way or another get your hands on a six-pack for a Saturday night - and that’s how drinking started for all of us in my neighborhood.
- The story of a 22-year-old recovering alcoholic.
The Monitoring the Future Study, conducted by the University of Michigan, with funding with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), found that 6.2% of all eighth graders, in the United States, had been drunk within the last 30 days. 18.8% of high school tenth graders, and 30% of all twelfth graders, also reported being drunk at least once in the last month. The percentages for daily alcohol use were much lower (0.5% of 8th graders, 1.3% of 10th graders, and 3.1% of 12th graders), revealing that high school students engage in binge drinking behaviors.
During the adolescent and early teenage years, the most emotional growth is occurring. When alcohol is used or abused during these formative years, emotional growth is then stunted, and various aspects of body and brain chemistry are impaired.
Since 44% of all college students admit to binge drinking at least once in a two-week time period, and drinking is starting in high school, the need for education and true prevention is vital to keep the youngest members of our society from destroying their lives and their health.
Binge drinking in college seems to have reached a place of social acceptance. “It’s what college students do,” but why?
One college junior shares the aspect of peer pressure contributing to binge drinking:
We drank quite a bit in my dorm, and, generally, when someone came into my dorm room on a weekend night, you had to take a bong - a beer bong. And we’d have the funnel that held like two and a half beers, and it was just the rule. We kinda pressured people to keep up, like you had to stay with the crowd.
Shauna Quinn, a drug and alcohol counselor at California State University, shares her take on college binge drinking:
Often it’s the style of drinking, not experimentation, that gets college students in trouble. Many think the name of the game is to get drunk. They drink too fast, they drink without eating, they play drinking games or contests; they binge drink. But because they drink heavily only once or twice a week, they think that there is no problem. But there usually is a problem: lower grades, disciplinary action, or behavior they regret, which usually means sexual behavior.
Binge drinking among college students is a major problem and needs to be addressed on a macro level. Several college campuses have taken the “dry” approach, where zero alcohol is permitted on campus grounds. The problem, though, is that bars and clubs are available just a block away from campus lines.