December 2003

Grant Results

National Program

Substance Abuse Policy Research Program

SUMMARY

Investigators at Harvard University School of Public Health studied the effects of college and community policies on drinking, smoking and related problems among college students.

The project was part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's (RWJF) national Substance Abuse Policy Research Program (SAPRP) (for more information see Grant Results).

Researchers analyzed data from 1993 and 1997 surveys of students at 116 four-year colleges and universities in 40 states.

Key Findings
Among the findings of the study:

  • The rate of binge drinking remained at 40 percent both years.
  • Binge drinkers and those in the environment of binge drinkers faced greater risk of alcohol-related problems.
  • Smoking on college campuses is on the rise.
  • Although strong college alcohol-control policies reduced drinking overall, they did not significantly reduce average weekly drinking or binge drinking.
  • Only campus-wide policies that ban drinking on campus entirely resulted in decreased levels of binge drinking and the secondhand effects of binge drinking.
  • General school policies concerning enforcement of alcohol bans, policies regarding alcohol at campus events or in residence halls, fraternities and sororities, and policies about disciplinary action were largely unrelated to binge drinking.

Funding
RWJF provided a $94,711 grant from 1996 to 1998 to support this work.

The principal investigator received a subsequent SAPRP grant (ID# 034926) to study how schools develop policies banning drinking on campus.

 See Grant Detail & Contact Information
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THE PROBLEM

Despite the fact that alcohol is illegal for most undergraduate students, it continues to be widely used on most college campuses.

Numerous studies have documented the use of alcohol by college students and the negative consequences associated with it. In particular, heavy episodic or binge drinking — defined as five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more for women at least once in a two-week period — poses a danger of serious health and other consequences for alcohol abusers and for others in the immediate environment.

Binge drinking has been associated with unplanned and unsafe sexual activity, physical and sexual assault, unintentional injuries, other criminal violations, interpersonal problems, physical or cognitive impairment, and poor academic performance.

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RWJF STRATEGY

In 1993, RWJF funded the first College Alcohol Study (ID# 019547), the first large-scale study to use a representative national sample of college students and the first to measure binge drinking that defined binge drinking differently by gender.

The results of that study confirmed that binge drinking is widespread on college campuses and that there are significant negative consequences for binge drinkers and for others in their environment. The College Alcohol Study has been repeated three times with support from RWJF (ID#s 029870, 030249, 035965).

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THE PROJECT

The data used for this project are survey results from the first College Alcohol Study conducted in 1993 and the subsequent College Alcohol Study II, conducted in 1997.

These are two representative national samples of students attending 116 four-year colleges and universities in 40 states in 1993 and 1997. In those studies, a total of 15,103 randomly selected students in 1993 and 14,251 students in 1997 were surveyed.

The surveys were designed to collect data about the nature, extent and associated problems of heavy episodic alcohol use or binge drinking among students, and their use of tobacco and other drugs. Investigators also developed a complete profile of the policy environment (including specific state-, community-, and college-level substance-control ordinances and policies) that existed at each of the schools at the time of each survey.

This study used results from the 1993 and 1997 surveys to examine changes in binge drinking and smoking rates between 1993 and 1997 at each of the colleges, and explored whether there is any relationship between those changes and the policy environment in force at the time.

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FINDINGS

The findings on binge drinking are from an article published in the Journal of American College Health. Those on smoking are from an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

  • There was little change in binge drinking on campus between 1993 and 1997. In both surveys, two of five students were binge drinkers; and one in five was a frequent binge drinker (students who binge three or more times in the same two-week period). In both surveys, four of five residents of fraternities and sororities were binge drinkers.
  • Asian students showed a greater increase and white students a greater decrease in binge drinking from 1993 to 1997, compared with all other students.
  • In both 1993 and 1997, those students who did drink drank more often, got drunk more often, drank with the purpose of getting drunk, and experienced more alcohol-related problems, including drinking and driving. Binge drinkers in both 1993 and 1997 were at increased risk of alcohol-related problems, and at colleges with high binge drinking rates students who did not binge drink had increased risks of encountering secondhand effects of binge drinking.
  • Students who were male, white, age 23 years or younger, never married, belong to fraternities, and binged in high school continued to have higher binge drinking rates than other students in both 1993 and 1997.
  • A significantly greater proportion of students in 1997 were abstainers. In 1993, 15.6 percent of students abstained from drinking; in 1997 19 percent did so — a 22 percent increase.
  • Strong state policies related to drinking and driving by youths significantly reduce binge drinking.
  • Beer tax reduces the prevalence of alcohol consumption overall, but does not affect the rate of binge drinking.
  • Although strong college alcohol-control policies reduce drinking by students overall, they do not significantly reduce average weekly drinking or participation in binge drinking.
  • Only campus-wide policies that ban drinking on campus entirely resulted in decreased levels of binge drinking and the secondhand effects of binge drinking. General school policies concerning enforcement of alcohol bans, policies regarding alcohol at campus events or in residence halls, fraternities and sororities, and policies about disciplinary action were largely unrelated to binge drinking.
  • Students under age 21 drink less often but have more drinks per occasion than students age 21–23, and they are more likely to drink in private settings (off-campus, dormitory and fraternity parties), and pay less per drink than do of-age students. Underage students are more likely to participate in binge drinking if they live in a fraternity or sorority, have very easy access to alcohol, obtain drinks at lower prices or drink beer.
  • Current cigarette smoking rose by 27.8 percent between 1993 and 1997, from 22.3 percent of students to 28.5 percent. Some increase in smoking was recorded in 99 of 116 colleges and 27 colleges showed a significant increase.
  • Current smoking increased across all student subgroups (defined by sex, race/ethnicity and year in school) and in all types of colleges. Smoking is rising faster in public colleges (from 22.0 percent to 29.3 percent) than in private ones (from 22.9 percent to 26.8 percent).
  • 11 percent of college smokers had their first cigarette, and 28 percent began to smoke regularly, at or after age 19, by which time most were already in college. Half of current smokers tried to quit in the previous year; 18 percent had made five or more attempts to quit.

Communications

Findings from this study were published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and the Journal of American College Health. A series of alcohol-related deaths of college students and disturbances on college campuses related to heavy drinking or attempts to restrict drinking have prompted extensive newspaper and television coverage of this topic and an ongoing media interest in the results of subsequent editions of the College Alcohol Survey.

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AFTER THE GRANT

The principal investigator on this project received a subsequent SAPRP grant (ID# 034926) to study how policies to ban drinking on campus are developed, and to determine the initial reactions of college officials, students and alumni to those policies.

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GRANT DETAILS & CONTACT INFORMATION

Project

Study to Examine the Relationship of Public and College Policies on Student Binge Drinking and Tobacco Use

Grantee

Harvard University School of Public Health

  • Amount: $ 94,711
    Dates: October 1996 to June 1998
    ID#:  030481

Contact

Henry Wechsler, Ph.D.
(617) 432-1137
hwechsle@hsph.harvard.edu

Web Site

http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/cas/Documents/97_survey

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

(Current as of date of this report; as provided by grantee organization; not verified by RWJF; items not available from RWJF.)

Articles

Wechsler H, Dowdall GW, Maenner G, Gledhill-Hoyt J and Lee H. "Changes in Binge Drinking and Related Problems Among American College Students Between 1993 and 1997: Results of the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study." Journal of American College Health, 47(2): 57–68, 1998. Abstract available online.

Wechsler H, Rigotti NA, Gledhill-Hoyt J and Lee H. "Increased Levels of Cigarette Use Among College Students: A Cause for National Concern." Journal of the American Medical Association, 280(19): 1673–1678, 1998. Abstract available online.

Wechsler H, Kuo M, Lee H and Dowdall GW. "Environmental Correlates of Underage Alcohol Use and Related Problems of College Students." American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 19(1): 24–29, 2000. Abstract available online.

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Report prepared by: Beth Brainard
Reviewed by: Mary Nakashian
Reviewed by: Molly McKaughan
Program Officer: Victor Capoccia
Also Interviewed: Seth Emont

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