For a lot of students it’s a no-brainer. College and alcohol are like peanut butter and jelly – one just isn’t the same without the other. The question is not whether to drink, but how much, and sometimes the answer can have serious health consequences.
The GW Center for Alcohol and Drug Education claims that 68 percent of GW students have zero to four drinks when they party. That’s the same percentage of college students who drink at all nationwide, according to the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol hospitalizations at GW nearly doubled last year, despite a 3.5 percent nationwide decrease in reported college binge drinking since 1997, according to the NIAAA. So does that make GW a drinking school?
For some students, alcohol is central to their social lives. “It plays a big part, ’cause if you go to a concert or a movie, you’re gonna have a few drinks first … It’s like a precursor,” said sophomore Chris Nitty, who considers binge drinking to be “about 15” drinks in a night.
Junior Monroe Johnson disagrees. “(GW is) not a drinking school, but there’s always an opportunity,” he said, adding that he thinks of binge drinking as “two or three drinks” in an evening.
So which student captures the importance of alcohol at GW? If the CADE figures are accurate then, in a way, both are correct. If 68 percent of GW students have four or fewer drinks, then 32 percent have five or more, which is significant because five drinks in a night is the point at which drinking becomes binging, as defined by the NIAAA.
It takes five drinks for men of average weight to reach a blood alcohol level of 0.10 and four for women of average weight. At this level, significant motor impairment and sensory distortion begins, and it is well past the point at which a person can be legally considered intoxicated and unfit to drive.
Body chemistry is a flexible thing – it should be stressed that alcohol can and does effect everyone differently – nevertheless, the five-drink line between bingers and non-bingers can be seen as the difference between social drinking and drinking to get drunk. For more than two-thirds of GW students, alcohol safety isn’t a concern. But for those who drink to get drunk, education is vital in order to protect both themselves and those around them.
“There’s no magic number that some people can drink and others can’t,” said nurse practitioner Susan Haney, the outreach coordinator for Student Health. A lot goes into determining how drunk students gets and how quickly they sober up. Factors include weight, gender, body fat percentage, stomach content and the amount of time between drinks, according to the Radford University Alcohol Education Web site.
After alcohol enters the bloodstream, it is carried to the rest of the body within 90 seconds, and once there, it takes about an hour for a single unit of alcohol (one shot of 80 proof liquor, one 12 oz. beer or one 8 oz. glass of wine) to leave the body. The more a person drinks and the faster he does so, the longer it can take to sober up.
But once alcohol is absorbed, nothing can speed up the rate at which a person sobers up. In response to two popular but ineffective sobering methods, the CADE Web site says, “caffeine makes a jittery drunk and showers make a wet drunk.”
Because time is the only thing that can sober a person, alcohol can prove very dangerous when it reaches toxic levels in the bloodstream. But again, these levels can vary widely from person to person.
“The term ‘alcohol poisoning’ is a term used when a person consumes a dangerous amount of alcohol. There is no strict level at which alcohol becomes poisonous,” Haney said.
The level at which problems occur may vary, but the signs indicating problems don’t.
“Vomiting is a signal from the body. It’s saying it doesn’t want to consume more alcohol,” Haney said. According to CADE, alcohol poisoning sets in when a person has passed out and cannot be woken and has a slowed or irregular breathing rate of under eight breaths a minute – passing out is not the same as sleeping it off. Vomiting while passed out, without waking, is also a sign of alcohol poisoning.
CADE stresses that people suffering from alcohol poisoning need medical attention so, in a sense, the rising hospitalization rate at GW is a positive figure because it signifies that students are growing more comfortable with calling for help.
“I think people are more worried about seeing their friends get hurt (than they used to be),” sophomore Brian Feener said.
Some students remain concerned, however, about the ramifications of helping a drunken friend when they are also intoxicated.
“I’ve known people who left a friend in the lobby of the dorm and called (University Police),” said Nitty. He said he would get help for a friend if the situation warranted it but that he would fear negative repercussions for himself if he were also intoxicated.
While the NIAAA defines binge drinking as five drinks in a night and heavy drinking as binging three or more times a week, neither necessarily constitutes alcoholism, which is a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol.
“Alcohol is definitely an addictive substance, it’s just not addictive for everyone,” Haney said, adding that most college students should be more concerned about the health risks of binge drinking than about alcoholism.
Daniel Lieberman, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at GW, said alcoholism is the product of intertwined physiological, psychological and environmental factors, making it difficult to diagnosis before the signs of the condition manifest. However, he said, certain factors indicate an increased risk of developing alcoholism, including family history, environmental factors and certain personality traits.
“(People with extensive family histories of alcoholism) can experience fewer subjective negative effects … They lack an intrinsic brake,” Lieberman said. He also said that others with family histories “feel fantastic when they drink, in a way that most people never do … they take that first drink and say, ‘Where have you been all my life?'”
Lieberman said that both decreased negative effects and increased positives can signal a tendency toward alcoholism. He noted that “novelty seeking” personalities – those driven to more extreme experiences – and people who use alcohol to compensate for social anxiety are also at risk.
Signs of alcoholism such as drinking alone, hiding alcohol, lying about drinking and withdrawing from activities not involving alcohol can be fairly easy to spot but often aren’t noticed until it is too late. Lieberman offered a few warning signs of which students should be aware if they are concerned about themselves or others.
One sign is if a person is unable to set a limit on his alcohol intake for the night and stick to it.
Lieberman recommended that students who are worried about their alcohol consumption set a definite limit before entering a drinking environment and suggested three drinks as a “very responsible” number, especially when alternated with non-alcoholic beverages. This tactic gives the body more time to process the alcohol and prevent over-consumption.
He said that while many students drink to excess during college, the vast majority of them reduce their drinking upon graduation; continuing to drink like a college student past graduation can be an indicator of a more serious problem.
Lieberman also pointed out that moderate drinking is more pragmatic at any time because “people get more out of social situations when they don’t get completely tanked.”