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Today’s news brought more headlines about young women drinking in college.  The headlines, as always, go beyond the mere facts of the study and sensationalize the issue to get the reader’s attention.

Over-consumption on our nation’s campuses – whether by men or women – continues to be a cause of concern that needs to be addressed.  And quality research is certainly one way to learn more about the problem in order to arrive at potential solutions.

Unfortunately, the government is making the problem harder than easier.  Should program designers focus on binge drinking? Heavy episodic drinking? High risk drinking? Daily drinking or weekly drinking? Or should practitioners zero in on efforts to address low-risk drinking defined by NIAAA as no more than 4 drinks per day and 14 drinks per week for men and 3 drinks per day and 7 drinks per week for women? Should we turn our attentions to the cutoffs for heavy episodic drinking defined as 5 or more drinks for a man or 4 or more drinks for a woman or a “pattern of drinking that brings an individual’s BAC up to.08” according, again, to NIAAA?

The thing is - all of those measurements are irrelevant. 

Here’s why…college students don’t define their drinking by any number at all.  Think about it.  Let’s say I’m a college student. Someone just came to the party with a handle and I mixed my own drink in a red cup without measuring, except maybe to taste.  After rocking out to a couple of tunes, I need something colder so I top it off to keep a steady buzz.  Half of it spilled anyway.  My buddy from across campus just came in and brought a six pack of a craft brew I’ve never tried so I grab one.  After all, it’s great to see him.  And so it goes all night long…for a great night out. And, sometimes, it starts in the early afternoon.

How many drinks did I have?

It’s time to focus on behaviors, not numbers.  It’s time to talk about getting wasted in terms that college students understand and relate to – like the student-led campaigns “Less Than U Think” at University of Alabama and “The Other Hangover” at University of Minnesota aim to do. These are edgy, attractive campaigns created by students, for students. They talk about drinking in the same way students talk about drinking because they are students themselves. Though the rest of us can certainly help, at the end of the day the power to eradicate this issue once and for all lies in the hands of the students. On their own terms, students must rethink their behaviors before, during, and after drinking. After all, isn’t learning to think for yourself, developing independence and enjoying new experiences what college is all about?  

Ralph Blackman