The United States as well as its colleges and universities must do a far better job of dissuading young Americans from excessive drinking if the toll of alcohol-related death, sexual assault, suicide and automobile crashes is not to rise even higher. While the number of young people who do not drink alcoholic beverages has risen slightly, the number of teen-agers who are binge drinkers remains far too high. Without significant intervention, the problem can only get worse.
A study released last week by the federally supported Task Force on College Drinking estimated that drinking by college students contributes to 1,400 deaths, 500,000 injuries and 70,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape. Further, 400,000 students between 18 and 24 years old reported having had unprotected sex as a result of drinking -- which has profound implications for unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases in the future.
"Most of those alcohol-related deaths were the result of motor vehicle crashes," said Dr. Ralph Hingson, professor at the Boston University School of Public Health and lead author of the report, which was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Drinking drivers are also frequently responsible for the death and injury of innocent others. Drunkenness is not a victimless crime.
Significant problem: While this report was one of 24 studies commissioned by the task force of college presidents, scientists and students convened by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, binge drinking is not limited to college campuses. Other studies have shown that 32 percent of high school students are drinking as well -- many with the complicity of parents who too often ignore their children's dangerous behavior; bars, restaurants and stores that are less than diligent in checking identification; and those in the justice system who treat alcohol-related offenses as nothing worth worrying about.
But punishing those who are caught doesn't go far enough. And simply telling kids not to drink has little impact. According to Hingson's report, incoming freshmen, males, fraternity and sorority members and athletes are the likeliest to drink. Freshmen, new to the college experience, believe that getting drunk is part of college life. And in sororities and fraternities, drinking has become an intrinsic part of Greek culture -- despite some efforts to diminish alcohol's influence.
That drinking rates are lower at religious schools, commuter schools or schools that are predominately or historically African-American should tell us something. The moral suasion of the religious institution, the lessened accessibility to the bar scene of homes away from college campuses and the cultural aversion to excessive drinking exhibited at historically black colleges suggest some of the ways to address the problems related to high school and college student drinking.
Too many families in our community have been saddened by alcohol-related death and injuries to their children. As the prom and graduation season nears, we would urge parents and teens and the purveyors of alcoholic beverages to be part of the solution to teen drinking, not part of the problem.