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California and the West

California Students More Moderate in Drinking, Study Says

Alcohol: But e-mail poll finds that many of the state's undergraduates admit misuse or making themselves ill. Most suggest banning hard liquor on campuses to solve problem.


Among college drinkers, those enrolled at Northern California campuses are twice as likely to admit to "misusing alcohol" as their peers in Southern California.

Students attending private colleges and universities are more likely to admit downing four or more drinks at a sitting than those at public campuses.

Yet California students overall do not toss back shots or mixed drinks as much as their colleagues at schools in the Northeast or the Midwest.

These findings come from a new poll released this week about student drinking habits at four-year colleges and universities in California and around the nation.

Nearly a third of California students surveyed say they do not drink at all. But about one in five admits engaging in unsafe drinking or misuse of alcohol at least four times during the last academic year and one student in six admits to having gotten seriously ill from pounding too many shots.

The survey was conducted by e-mail--an unorthodox polling technique, but one that may be well suited to college students. Virtually all four-year colleges and universities now issue e-mail addresses to all their students, making e-mail surveys of college students statistically more reliable than for the general population.

The pollsters, from the firm of Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates of Washington, D.C., began with 1 million e-mail addresses--a representative sample of all students attending four-year colleges and universities.

A sample of 2,500 students returned the e-mail surveys from July 20 to Aug. 4. Of that group, 449 were from California. The polling firm weighted the results to conform with U.S. Department of Education figures on gender, year in school and location across more than 100 colleges and universities in the state. The work was paid for by an anonymous donor concerned about the dangers of college alcohol abuse. The margin of error for California's sample is plus or minus 4.6 percentage points.

The results suggest college administrators may be all wrong in the ways they are trying to curb alcohol abuse and related problems.

Forget banning keg parties, the students say. Beer isn't the problem. It's hard liquor, particularly shots and shooters, that gets used exclusively to get drunk fast--and often poses the greatest dangers.

"Once I got talked into doing shots and just couldn't handle it," a UC Berkeley sophomore wrote on her survey. "I ended up with a guy that I kind of knew, and he wouldn't take no for an answer. You hear the word date rape but never think it could happen to you."

The poll, released by the Assn. of College Unions International--a group of student activities directors--determined that more than half of California students agree that alcohol misuse is a somewhat or very serious problem on their campuses. And the problem, almost all reported, has stayed the same or gotten a bit worse in recent years.

If it were up to students to suggest one thing to protect their classmates from the dangers of unsafe drinking, a large majority--67% to 27%--said they would ban hard liquor.

Such a remedy, although easy to jot down in a poll, might be difficult to carry out.

Consider this anonymous comment from a senior at Pepperdine University--a dry campus: "Drinking on campus is generally not too bad, but when the frats throw parties [off campus] where they encourage guys to do shots, that's when it can get ugly. Guys get really drunk, make ugly passes at the girls. . . . It's worse for freshmen, who don't know what they're doing."

Dan Adams, of the Assn. of College Unions International, said college drinking cannot be separated from alcohol use and abuse in society at large. College drinking reflects American culture, he said, adding that he believes college students have gotten a bum rap in recent years as "binge drinkers."

The poll asked students about that term and got an earful. The Harvard School of Public Health, which has popularized the term through a series of annual reports on college drinking, defines bingeing as having five drinks at one sitting for men (four drinks for women) within the last two weeks.

"If that's binge drinking, then 95% of my campus binge drinks every week!" wrote a UCLA junior. "If I have five drinks in one sitting, I cannot drive a motor vehicle, but I am certainly coherent, without slurred speech, without staggering. It depends on the person."

A majority of students rejected Harvard's definition. Asked to come up with their own, 62% considered six or more drinks in one sitting to be "excessive drinking." And 54% defined binge drinking as at least eight drinks in one sitting.

According to the alcohol impairment charts distributed by the Department of Motor Vehicles, a person with a body weight of as much as 169 pounds would be legally intoxicated after consuming four or more drinks within three hours.

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