Students who get drunk weekly have higher risk of injuries

05/16/05

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. College students who get drunk at least once a week are significantly more likely to be hurt or injured than other student drinkers, according to new research from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

The research suggests that a simple screening question "In a typical week, how many days do you get drunk?" may help identify at-risk students.

"Each year approximately 1,700 college students die from alcohol-related injuries," said Mary Claire O'Brien, M.D., assistant professor of emergency medicine and public health sciences at Wake Forest's School of Medicine, which is part of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. "Our goal was to develop a simple tool to tell which student drinkers are at highest risk of getting hurt, as a result of their own drinking and the drinking of others."

The results, part of an ongoing, five-year research project to develop effective strategies for reducing problem drinking on college campuses, were reported today at the annual meeting of the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine in New York City.

Wake Forest researchers found that students who got drunk at least once weekly were three times more likely to be hurt or injured due to their own drinking than student drinkers who do not report getting drunk at least once a week. They were twice as likely to fall from a height and need medical care, and 75 percent more likely to be sexually victimized. Getting drunk was defined as being unsteady, dizzy or sick to your stomach.

"When you drink, you're also at risk because of other people's drinking," O'Brien said.

For example, students who got drunk at least once weekly were three times more likely to be in an automobile accident caused by someone else's drinking and twice as likely to be taken advantage of sexually by someone who was drinking.

O'Brien's goal was to identify a one-question screening tool that could be used in busy hospital emergency departments. She said the Wake Forest "single question" was designed specifically for college students.

"The emergency department presents a teachable moment," she said. "Research has shown that a brief intervention, such as simple advice, can change drinking patterns."

O'Brien said that current screening tools define problem drinking as having four or five drinks in a row.

"In my experience, patients lie about how much they drink, and screening tests based on quantity don't account for differences in weight, gender, alcohol tolerance, body metabolism, medications and other variables," she said. "What it takes to make someone drunk varies from individual to individual."

The overall goal of the $3.2 million Study to Prevent Alcohol-Related Consequences (SPARC) is to reduce the availability of alcohol to students and to help change campus cultures that promote drinking. The study uses such strategies as restricting alcohol at campus events, increasing enforcement, constraining marketing and educating alcohol sellers and servers, landlords, students and parents.

Ten North Carolina universities are participating in the Wake Forest study. Students are surveyed once a year on their alcohol consumption, availability of alcohol, attitudes and perceptions, and consequences experienced from drinking. Strategies to reduce problem drinking are being implemented at half of the campuses, with emphasis on forming campus-community coalitions that address issues specific to each school. The web-based student surveys are one of several measures of the project's effectiveness.

The multidisciplinary study team is led by Robert H. DuRant, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics and public health sciences at Wake Forest Baptist. The research is funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

O'Brien's research is based on the first student web survey (fall 2003), which found that 63 percent of students under age 21 drink and that 20 percent of the drinkers usually have seven or more drinks. More than half (54 percent) of the drinkers said they get drunk at least weekly.

According to the NIAAA, about four out of five students drink and about half of the drinkers engage in heaving episodic consumption. It is estimated that that 97,000 students each year are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape, that almost a third (31 percent) of college students meet the criteria for a diagnosis of alcohol abuse and that 2.8 million college students drove under the influence of alcohol last year.

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