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University of Massachusetts survey shows binge drinking down, off-campus drinking rising

Results from an online survey of 680 students, compiled by Assistant Dean of Students Sally Linowski, show that efforts to combat binge drinking, usually defined as consuming enough alcohol in a two-hour period to get legally intoxicated, are having a positive effect on behavior.

“The fact we’re seeing decreases in binge drinking is great,” said Linowksi, the former associate director of University Health Services, who presented statistics Wednesday to the Campus and Community Coalition to Reduce High-Risk Drinking. “What it also means is there is less tolerance for bad behavior.”

The statistics also show, however, that 66 percent of students say they bring their own alcohol to off-campus parties, up from 50 percent a year earlier, and 31 percent say they paid admission to get into an off-campus party where alcohol is served, up from 15 percent last year.

Linowski said these are both increasing concerns for the coalition to address.

Amherst Police Capt. Christopher Pronovost said the statistics jibe with the department’s experience.

“This reflects what we’re seeing — that there are more problems off campus,” Pronovost said.

Pronovost cited the detection of an illegal underground bar at 11 Phillips St. that led to 14 students being summoned to court in October for operating it. Pronovost said police will try to identify more of these during the spring semester. “We will be vigorously targeting illegal bars off campus.”

Pronovost said he also expects cooperation from UMass police in dealing with students walking from campus with backpacks filled with alcohol.

The “Surveys of Substance Abuse” began in 2005 as a way to monitor trends over time. This year, 2,500 students were given an opportunity to participate, with 680, or 27 percent, responding, Linowski said. Of the respondents, more than 65 percent were women, but the respondents were consistent with the racial demographics of the campus.

Linowksi said work done by administrators to combat binge drinking has meant parties, disturbances and other alcohol-fueled incidents are becoming more noticeable, even though the behavior is increasingly considered unacceptable.

“The trends are positive. We’re moving in the directions we want to move,” Linowski said.

In the seven years since the survey began, those who are considered frequent binge drinkers, often the ones who are hosting parties and trying to perpetuate the ZooMass image, have dropped from 33 percent to 14 percent, she said.

There has been a similar 20 percent decrease in heavy episodic drinking among students, which is considered five drinks in a row for men, or four drinks in a row for women, over a two-hour period, sometime within the past two weeks.

Heavy episodic drinking went down from nearly 60 percent seven years ago to around 47 percent this year, Linowski said. An even bigger 27 percent decline has been seen among underage binge drinkers, from 64 percent in 2004 to 47 percent this year.

A troubling statistic is that 72 percent of students are engaging in what is known as “pregaming,” the practice of consuming alcoholic beverages in dormitory rooms before heading out to an off-campus party, concert or other event.

For men, the average is four drinks, often beer, for women three drinks, frequently flavored rums and vodkas, that Linowski said are more palatable for shots. After the pregame ritual, women’s blood alcohol content is estimated to be at .062, higher than the .057 registered by men, Linowski said.

While the students are not legally intoxicated, Linowski said, this indicates many already have a good buzz before heading out for the night.

Statistics from the survey, though, can also counter commonly held perceptions, such as students who begin drinking on Thursday nights and continue right on through Sunday mornings. This isn’t borne out in the numbers, with 71 percent of respondents saying they consume alcohol on two days each week, at most.

“Most students, if they choose to drink, are drinking on two days or less per week,” Linowski said.

The average number of drinks students have consumed in the past week is nine, Linowski said, compared to 14 drinks a week two years ago.

And students are spending $13 a week for their alcohol.

“They are probably spending more on their coffee, if they go to Starbucks, than they do on their drinking,” Linowski said.

Of those surveyed, 64 percent said the social atmosphere at UMass promotes a culture of excessive drinking. This had been at 86 percent during the first survey in 2005.

Also down is the number of students who say their sleep has been interrupted by drinking-related disturbances. In 2010, 65 percent said this had happened. This year, 55 percent reported it.

Linowski noted that Massachusetts is in the top 10 for youth binge drinking rates, and there is a low tax rate on alcohol in the state. In addition, the campus fits with risk factors that include being a public university in a rural area with a Greek system and Division 1 sports teams, and a predominantly white student body.

The numbers give the coalition guidance on where to focus its efforts, Linowski said.

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