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Guzzling greeks

(HealthScout) -- Just because you are a card-carrying member of "Tappa Kegga Brew" in college doesn't mean you're more likely to party hardy for the rest of your life.

While heavy drinking at the college sorority or fraternity house does not predict increased alcohol use later in life, new research says the perception that heavy drinking in college is OK does lead to increased alcohol consumption.

"There's an increase in binge or heavy drinking when students leave high school and go to college, and an additional component to the heavy-drinking pattern is being part of the Greek system," says lead researcher Kenneth J. Sher, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

"We wanted to study whether there was a cumulative effect of the years of college drinking and whether it would predict future potential alcohol-related problems," says Sher, who also is co-principal investigator at the Missouri Alcoholism Research Center at the university.

The researchers surveyed 319 students during their four years of college, then again three years after graduation, asking how much they and their friends drank, how they felt about drinking and what they thought were the effects of alcohol. The participants' academic performance and personality characteristics were assessed, including extroversion, introversion and novelty seeking.

Although fraternity and sorority members drank significantly more while in college than non-Greek students, the researchers say they showed no cumulative effect three years after graduation, and they were not more likely to drink alcohol excessively. Details appear in this month's Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, a journal of the American Psychological Association.

Why do Greeks drink more? Sher says the fraternity house may create an environment in which drinking is the "way of life."

Similar behavior can be observed during spring break, when the word "party" in a travel ad often helps determine the location for the vacation ritual and sets up the "it's-OK-to-drink-heavily" mindset, Sher says.

"We recognize that drinking is part of the [college] culture and provides meaningful enjoyment," Sher says. But the problem for campus administrators is the "serious costs to the drinker and the unintended victims, such as injuries, sexual assault, motor vehicle crashes and fatal alcohol poisoning," he says.

Stephen W. Long, executive officer of the Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, says his agency has studied the problems of campus drinking for many years.

"In l998, we created a committee of 10 college presidents and roughly 10 alcohol researchers to look at college drinking and to be able to tell the presidents this is what the research shows," Long says. Once that's complete, he says, intervention and prevention programs can follow.

"There's just not enough high-quality research to show what works and what does not work," Long says.

For instance, some colleges have implemented so-called social norming programs to reduce drinking levels, he says.

Many students believe their peers drink more heavily than they, Long says. But once they're convinced there's really less drinking, the theory holds that they will drink less, a new social norm will be set and drinking will be reduced, he says.

"But, it's controversial," Long says. "Many people believe it works, and it might, but we just don't know." That's the type of things researchers are trying to figure out, he says.

"This is a complex problem, which requires a combination of strategies. No single approach will be effective. There are no two colleges the same," Long says.

Even when programs are in place, he says "a rigorous evaluation is seldom done, and the college presidents don't know whether what they attempted made things better or worse."

What To Do

"There is no magic bullet," Sher says. "You need to have consistent policies, you need to make sure students know what they are, and they need to be enforced consistently."

Also needed are community-wide efforts, involving law enforcement, community bars and alcoholic beverage wholesalers and retailers, to limit availability and enact price controls, say both Sher and Long.

For information on enforcement policies of colleges and universities that have banded together to fight alcohol abuse, visit the Promising Practices program online.

The warning signs of a drinking problem are provided by the McKinley Health Center at the University of Illinois.

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