HEAVY DRINKING: SOME STUDENTS CALL IT QUITS BEFORE GRADUATION
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Results of a new study suggest that nearly one in four college students who drink alcohol heavily on a regular basis quit doing so before graduation.
While many researchers have looked at why college students stop drinking once they graduate, the current study looks at students who stopped heavy drinking while still in school. Learning what drives heavy drinkers to temper their alcohol use might help researchers create more effective alcohol misuse intervention campaigns on college campuses.
“The factors that lead students to establish a pattern of heavy drinking may differ from those that lead them to stop,” said Kenneth Steinman, author of the study and an assistant professor of health behavior and health promotion at Ohio State University’s School of Public Health. “It may be necessary to use different strategies to address each of these behaviors.”
The study appears in a recent issue of the Journal of American College Health.
Steinman surveyed a total of 778 undergraduate students at Ohio State. He found that 40 percent of the students almost never engaged in heavy drinking. The rest of the students, deemed episodic heavy drinkers, admitted to three or more episodes of heavy drinking – four or more drinks in a row for a woman and five or more for a man – either during their senior year in high school or first year of college.
These students were then asked whether they had drunk excessively during the previous month, and also about their future intentions and past behavior regarding alcohol use. Based on their answers, the heavy drinkers were placed into one of four categories, or stages, of change:
A third of the heavy drinkers fell into the last three stages: nine percent in the maintenance stage; 14 percent in the action stage; and another 12 percent in the contemplation stage. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the heavy drinkers fell into the precontemplation stage.
Students in the precontemplation stage drank an average of 12.5 alcoholic beverages each week, compared to one drink a week for those in the maintenance stage. Students who had cut back on their intake reported that they perceived more risks and fewer benefits associated with alcohol use than did students in the precontemplation group.
Interestingly, these students still felt that heavy drinking was socially acceptable and even the norm on their campus.
“It would seem logical that the students who decided to quit drinking heavily would also find the behavior more inappropriate,” Steinman said. “That wasn’t the case here.
“Although most of the heavy drinkers had no intention of ceasing their habit, stopping such excessive drinking while in college isn’t that unusual,” he continued, adding that he’s conducting a follow-up study to describe the reasons why some students quit regular heavy drinking.
“If we can figure out why a third of the students had either stopped or at least given thought to stopping heavy drinking, it might give us some real insight for creating more effective programs to decrease excessive alcohol use,” he said.
But Steinman admits that effective interventions have been difficult to develop.
In spite of great efforts across U.S. college campuses to decrease binge drinking, the national average – two out of five students regularly misuse alcohol – has remained steady for the last 15 to 20 years, Steinman said.
“A small portion of students won’t respond to any kind of broad-based intervention,” he said. “But there are many people who aren’t addicted and can stop drinking heavily without much problem. We may be able to devise successful intervention programs to encourage these students to break their habit earlier than they might otherwise.”
A grant from the Ohio State University Research Foundation funded this study.