Taking the 'in' out of binge drinking

By Kimberly Miller

Arizona Daily Wildcat

"Cheap drinks for the masses all night."

"More alcohol than you can shake a stick at."

"Attention Binge Drinkers. Intoxicate your tan body with an icy cold alcoholic slush."

Looking at a sample of fliers posted throughout the University of Arizona campus, one might get the impression that students are here to drink and drink a lot.

Koreen Johannessen, director of UA health promotion and preventive services, said fliers like these give a false impression on the rate of drinking on campus and perpetuate a vicious circle that can lead to binge drinking.

"The assumption made, especially by freshmen and sophomores, is that students here go out two to three nights a week and get rip-roaring drunk," Johannessen said. "They want to fit in so they may feel pressure to do the same. But what we want to get across is that if you're drinking this much you really aren't drinking like everyone else here. Calm down and take a breather, but you don't have to be a teetotaler."

The reality is that 39 percent of UA students reported in a 1994 Student Health survey that they drink five or more drinks in one sitting in a two-week period, a figure that the American Medical Association says makes them binge drinkers.

Johannessen is hoping that a $1.8 million grant given the UA by the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in November will help lower the number of students who binge drink by providing money for research and alcohol-free activities around campus.

Johannessen especially wants to use the grant money to target students, with special attention to students younger than 21, who go into Mexico to drink.

"We're looking at border drinking to see what we can do about students going down there just to get drunk and then maybe getting

into a fight or drunk-driving home," Johannessen said.

Gary, a 24-year-old who would only speak to the Wildcat under the condition of anonymity, said the Nogales experience can be a dangerous one when too much alcohol is involved, and he carries the scars to prove it.

Three years ago Gary went to Nogales, Mexico with two female friends who were younger than 21. After consuming about 24 drinks in a bar, the three made their way onto the American side where they had parked their car at a Burger King.

"All night we would do a shot and then drink two beers," Gary said. "By the time we got to the car I was on all fours puking my guts out when some guys just grabbed me and started beating me up."

Gary suffered a fractured eye socket and a dislocated elbow and one of the females he was with was also attacked. The trauma continued at the Nogales hospital where Gary ended up.

"I was so drunk I didn't know what was going on," Gary said. "I guess when I got to the hospital I kicked two doctors and pushed some nurses or something. The next thing I knew they put my arm in a sling, threw some ice on it, and tossed me into the street. When I finally got to St. Mary's Hospital in Tucson the doctors said my elbow was one of the worst dislocations they had ever seen."

Surprisingly Gary returned to Mexico to drink but said he made sure he always went with other men.

Johannessen said this type of thing happens often when students go over the border to drink.

"Most students do not report having trouble of any kind," Johannessen said. "But a lot of people are fairly ill-informed about the Mexican experience and the problems that can happen when alcohol is involved."

Lieutenant Frank Carrizoza, of the Nogales Police Department, said he has seen a lot of problems involving UA students who go to Nogales to drink, get into fights on the Mexican side and then run to the border. But he said he believes problems will diminish because of an increase in police foot patrols and assistance on the Mexican side.

"The new mayor knows about the problems and wants to deal with them progressively," Carrizoza said. "I think we will see a whole different kind of people coming into Nogales."

One thing Johannessen is looking for from border research is whether it would be safer to transport people on a bus to Nogales and back or whether that would simply enable students to drink more.

The grant also recently funded a team of five health services workers who went to Puerto Penasco, Mexico during spring break. Johannessen said the team met with the local red cross and the mayor and surveyed 117 students, 43 from UA, who were on a beach one afternoon.

"We were really just trying to get an idea of who is going to Mexico for spring break," Johannessen said. "What we found was only 6 percent of students were going to a real party-hardy place like Puerto Penasco."

She said that of the estimated 2,000 people on the beach during the survey, 75 percent were drinking alcohol, some lying unconscious in the dangerously hot sun.

"The most disturbing thing we saw was a male who was slumped over near a tree with a beer in one hand and so sunburned he was just beet red," Johannessen said.

She said the majority of people who return every year to heavy drinking areas for spring break have a binge drinking problem.

"These areas are an excuse to drink to excess because everyone is doing it," Johannessen said.

She said the binge drinking figure of five beers per sitting in a two-week period may be misleading because alcohol affects everyone differently and some people can handle more alcohol than others.

"You really have to consider a person's size in this figure," Johannessen said. "A brawny-sized guy might have a six-drink limit where most women are under the table after three."

Johannessen said she's not concerned with the student who has one or two drinks at a sitting and that totally abstaining from alcohol is not what she advocates. Rather, it's the social implications that occur after a period of heavy drinking that she wants to target.

"Drinking is not particularly unhealthy," Johannessen said. "But at a five-drink level we see a lot more negative social effects like fighting."

Johannessen said her main concern is ending the binge-drinking cycle that begins with the assumption that to fit in at the UA you have to drink heavily.

"We don't want freshmen to feel like they have to go get a fake identification and go to O'Malley's to be a good freshman," Johannessen said.

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