April 22, 2002

Female Binge Drinking Rises

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As Cornell’s Slope Day approaches, the issue of binge drinking pervades the campus, entering the conversations of both administrators and students.

Binge drinking, a practice some stereotypically associate with men, has become significantly more prevalent among college women, according to data from many universities across the country.

For instance, twice as many women then men at Syracuse University were rushed to the hospital due to alcohol intoxication last year. In addition, at the University of Vermont, the average blood alcohol level of intoxicated women treated at the hospital is .20, which is ten percent higher than that of intoxicated men, according to this month’s Time magazine article called “Women on a Binge.”

Binge drinking has also increased at all-women colleges over the past ten years, according to study conducted by Henry Wechsler of the Harvard School of Public Health, which appeared in the Journal of American College Health this month.

“Between 1993 and 2001, all-women colleges saw a 125 percent increase in frequent binge drinking, defined as consuming four or more drinks in a row, three or more times in the past two weeks,” Weschler said as reported by Time.

Inconsistencies in past research findings make it unclear whether or not there is a meaningful distinction in the drinking rates of women attending women’s colleges as compared to coeducational colleges, according to Philip Meilman, associate director of Gannett: Cornell University Health Services and director of Counseling and Psychological Services.

Although data from many universities nationwide have indicated that female binge drinking has increased, survey research at Cornell has not resulted in similar findings.

“The level of drinking among Cornell undergraduate women has remained relatively constant in recent years,” said Tim Marchell, director of alcohol policy initiatives at Gannett.

Cornell participated in a national survey called the Core Alcohol and Drug Survey in 2000, according to Marchell.

“The data from that study suggest that Cornell undergraduate females consume an average of 3.5 alcoholic drinks per week,” he said.

More females than males are utilizing federally-funded alcohol abuse screening programs, according to the Time article. Over 19,000 women, as compared to about 16,000 men, have been screened for alcohol abuse at federally-funded day clinics held at about 400 universities since 1999.

Gannett does not have data that would indicate any trends in the extent to which females have utilized their alcohol services, according to Marchell.

“Part of what makes such record keeping a challenge is that many people that we counsel about alcohol use come to us with other problems first,” he said. “In the course of counseling, alcohol may arise as another problem that needs to be addressed.”

Therefore, according to Marchell, it is unclear whether the numbers of women who have received alcohol counseling from Gannett have changed over the past years.

Physiological differences generally inhibit women from drinking as much as men, according to Marchell.

“Women should understand that because of physiological differences, they become more impaired than men who drink the same amount of alcohol,” he said.

Among the physiological differences that put a woman at more risk when drinking the same amount alcohol as a man is her body composition. Since women’s bodies have a higher ratio of fat to water than men’s, alcohol is less diluted when it enters the bloodstream, according to the Time article.

“If a woman tries to drink the same amount as a man, that can be risky,” Marchell said.

In addition to physiological effects, women who binge drink face other negative consequences.

“Alcohol consumption can increase a woman’s risk of sexually transmitted infections and sexually traumatic experiences, including assault,” Marchell said.

Although the practice of binge drinking is not confined to the Greek system, many Cornell women learn about the consequences of un-safe drinking through their sororities. The Panhellenic Association has taken steps to educate sorority women about safe alcohol consumption.

“The problem of binge drinking on college campuses is not exclusively a Greek problem; it is a problem that affects students from all walks of campus life,” said Lindsay Williams ’03, president of the Panhellenic Association. “We find it important to educate sorority women about alcohol consumption and abuse. Drinking responsibly is part of a healthy lifestyle, and that lifestyle will enable these women to achieve their goals during their time at Cornell.”

Upon entering the Greek system, all new members must participate in an alcohol education program. Currently, students are participating in a pilot program called AlcoholEdu, according to Williams.

“It is a two-hour long, online program that discusses how people react to alcohol depending on their sex, weight, how quickly they’re drinking, the connection between alcohol and sexual assault, how alcohol interacts with other drugs and how to identify and deal with alcoholism,” she said.

Additionally, eighty percent of each chapter’s members must attend two Panhellenic-sponsored educational programs each semester, according to Williams.

Although more college women are binge drinking, an increasing number of women are abstaining from alcohol use, according to Weschler’s study.

According to the Core Alcohol and Drug Survey, one-third of all women report drinking zero drinks per week at Cornell. Overall, seven in ten women report drinking zero, one, two or three drinks per week, according to Marchell.

Archived article by Stephanie Hankin