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Back to campus: College binge drinking

Across this nation, many college campuses will celebrate the end of August with the onset of football season.  Usually, this coincides with the beginning of classes.  This is true at the University of Iowa, where I am a professor.  This first weekend of football is also the busiest for our hospital’s emergency department, when we see a record number of students brought in by friends, police, and ambulances for alcohol-related problems. 

According to a study of binge drinking behaviors of college students, students who are fans of athletics are far more likely to binge drink and face negative consequences from alcohol use.[i]  Arrest records at the University of Iowa assembled by, show that the number of arrests for alcohol related offenses is dramatically higher in the last week of August and first week of September; precisely correlating to the first football game. 

Since 1998, when Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala called on the NCAA to “sever the ties between college sports and drinking”, universities made efforts to eliminate the sale of alcohol at their sporting events.  By 2000, most college stadiums had banned the sale of alcohol at concession stands.  But in the last few years, several universities have added alcohol sales back to general fans attending their games.

As my research team documents in an upcoming publication in the International Journal of Sport and Society, underage students make up 25% of those who present to the ER, and are four times more likely to get into trouble with alcohol when compared to legal drinkers.[ii] It is not hard to understand why freshmen students tend to have problems with alcohol: they are away from home for the first time and are subject to enormous peer pressure to participate in ritualized alcohol consumption.  They have no concept of their tolerance or limits.  And they only discover they’ve had too much when they land in the ER. 

The beginning of school is a venerable time for many students adjusting to a new life.  Parents need to be engaged in a lifetime of conversations about responsible alcohol consumption.  As demonstrated by a study funded by the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, communicating to students with text messages asking about binge drinking reduced the frequency of binge drinking.  Back to school time and the first football games are a time to focus these messages. 

Hans House, MD, FACEP

University of Iowa

ACEP Board of Directors

[i] Nelson TF, H Wechsler, School spirits: alcohol and college sports fans.  Addictive Behaviors 28 (2003) 1–11.

[ii] House HR, Morrison JR, Pelc G, Harland KK.  Impact of Alcohol Use Policies on Emergency Department Census During Football Games.  The International Journal of Sport and Society 4 (2014).  In press.


*The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility ( or any member.*



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