AMA Survey shows parents fret over binge drinking; colleges say they should

Wednesday, August 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) _ Just the accounts of how they died should be sobering.

A University of Michigan student celebrating his 21st birthday died after downing his 20th shot in 10 minutes. An Old Dominion University student choked to death on his own vomit during a pledge-week drinking binge. A Colgate University student is facing four years in prison after crashing into a tree during a night of drinking, killing four students.

They were only a few of the college drinking tragedies last school year.

``Most students get here and think, `Oh, it's freedom. I can do whatever I want without mom and dad finding out,'' said Kelly Hill of Detroit, a junior at the University of Michigan. ``A lot of them don't know what their limits are.''

A nationwide survey by the American Medical Association released Wednesday shows college binge drinking is among parents' top concerns. Of the parents surveyed, 95 percent said excessive drinking is a serious threat to their children and 85 percent said easy access to alcohol in college communities contributes to the problem.

``The potential that their son or daughter is personally involved or becoming a victim of alcohol abuse or heavy drinking'' ought to be a serious concern for all parents of college students, said Chancellor John Wiley of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Two students died there in alcohol-related falls last year and 40 others received emergency-room treatment for severe drunkenness.

To cut down alcohol access, the new basketball-hockey stadium won't be selling beer, an estimated loss of $500,000 during hockey season alone. The university is also among 10 colleges nationwide participating in an AMA-led initiative to curb binge drinking.

The $17.5 million AMA program started in 1996 with The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to address a problem that affects an estimated 44 percent of U.S. college students.

Its efforts include eliminating alcohol-industry sponsorships of athletics, mandating parental notification if underage students are caught with alcohol, increasing alcohol-free social events on campus and encouraging local tavern owners to eliminate drink specials geared toward students.

George Bergalis, whose daughter Sondra, a Florida State University student, died in a car crash last fall after a night of heavy drinking, said bar owners are partly to blame for college binge drinking.

``The bars in these college towns, which are there to maximize profits, realize the harmful effects they might have on the students,'' Bergalis said.

In Madison, Wiley said several tavern owners near the University of Wisconsin campus had agreed not to have ladies' nights or two-for-one specials known to draw students.

``They were forced to do that or lose their licenses,'' said Barbara Mercer, president of the local tavern league.

Mercer believes taverns have an economic right to cater to students and that drinking in bars is safer than drinking elsewhere because students ``can be cut off when they've had too much.''

``We're not responsible for the binge drinking because we're under a controlled atmosphere,'' she said.

Parents, too, can be part of the problem. They've been found helping their children smuggle booze into dorm rooms ``trying to make sure Billy or Susie fits in socially and has a good time here,'' Wiley said.

Dr. J. Edward Hill, AMA's chairman-elect, said the issue of college students binge drinking is extremely serious.

At the University of Colorado, 58 percent of students say they've recently engaged in binge drinking _ about five or more drinks in one sitting, said Robert Maust, project director for the AMA program on campus. That's above the national average and has remained pretty constant, he said.

``There is definitely a lot of drinking going on,'' said senior Phil Sambrano, 23.

There are a few positive signs, however. Among them, a ban on beer sales in the Boulder football stadium is credited for a 52 percent reduction in the number of fans kicked out of the stadium and a 70 percent decline in arrests.

In addition to University of Colorado and University of Wisconsin-Madison, schools participating in the AMA-led initiative to curb binge drinking are University of Delaware, Florida State, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Iowa, Lehigh University, Louisiana State University, University of Nebraska and University of Vermont.

The AMA survey released Wednesday was conducted by pollsters Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates and included 342 parents of college or college-bound high school students, a random sample considered nationally representative.