Shared from the 2017-05-23 Chattanooga eEdition

To Your Health

Binge drinking a serious concern


Dr. Clif Cleaveland

On Feb. 2 of this year, Timothy Piazza, a 19-yearold Penn State sophomore embarked on an initiation ritual for a college fraternity. Following multiple alcoholic drinks served within two minutes at drinking stations within the fraternity house, he staggered about before falling down a flight of basement stairs. Security cameras documented other falls, some resulting in blows to his head, as he wove his way among other intoxicated students.

Fraternity members tried various methods of restraint as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Pleas from one member to call an ambulance were ignored. Episodic efforts at reviving the student were clumsy and ineffectual. Cameras documented students stepping over his body later in the evening.

The next morning, he was found unresponsive behind a bar. After a delay of 45 minutes, emergency services were finally summoned. The young man died in hospital two days later. His blood alcohol level was 0.3 milligrams percent many hours after his last drink, indicating severe intoxication. According to court documents, his blood alcohol level that night would have been between 0.28 and 0.36 percent. (By way of comparison, Tennessee’s DUI law sets the standard of impairment at 0.08 or above.) Piazza’s autopsy documented traumatic brain injury and a ruptured spleen, which caused intra-abdominal bleeding.

On May 5, 18 students were indicted on charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault, hazing, furnishing alcohol to minors and tampering with evidence. The fraternity, which has subsequently been shut down and permanently banned from the university, faces 147 charges.

University officials expressed their horror over the tragedy. A oneyear moratorium on recruitment of new fraternity and sorority members has been imposed, along with limits on the amount and types of alcohol permitted at parties sponsored by the organizations.

One life was lost. Many other lives are severely, perhaps irreparably, impacted by this needless tragedy.

This terrible episode illustrates the persistent problem of binge-drinking on college campuses. Binge-drinking involves five or more drinks in a row, usually within two hours for a male or four drinks in the same interval by a female. This will usually raise the blood alcohol level well above the legal threshold of intoxication and leave the drinker physically and mentally impaired.

Recent studies indicate that 44 percent of college students engage in binge-drinking, some on multiple occasions within a two-week period. Males predominate. Freshmen and athletes seem at greater risk for engaging in binge-drinking. An estimated one-half of binge drinkers establish this behavior before college.

A 2012 report in the Journal of College Counseling includes chilling, nationwide data on the annual toll of binge drinking:

Up to 1,900 college students die as a consequence of alcohol-related injuries. This includes deaths from auto accidents, falls, alcohol poisoning and assaults.

More than 600,000 students are injured.

Approximately 700,000 students are assaulted by a student who is inebriated.

An estimated 100,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

Students who binge-drink often have no recollection of events in the hours following their imbibing alcohol. They may become perpetrators or victims of violence during this amnesic interval. Often, these students struggle academically. They may be subject to episodes of depression and/or anxiety.

Colleges have employed a variety of tactics to reduce binge drinking. Educational efforts aimed at new students show mixed benefits. Planning alternative, campuswide social events on weekends and extending hours of recreational facilities show promise.

Studies indicate that students who binge-drink are unlikely to refer themselves to counseling centers on their campuses. If a friend or roommate expresses concern about binge drinking, this may prompt a drinker to seek counseling. A friend of a binge drinker may also seek advice from a counseling center on how best to intervene.

Since many students begin binge drinking in high school, more robust and sustained education on the risks of this behavior must begin at this level. A robust, multimedia advertising campaign would pull the topic of binge drinking into the spotlight and prompt necessary conversations within families, classes, clubs and athletic teams.

Binge drinking at any age is a tough problem with no easy solutions. As a society, we must not give up on addressing this threat to the safety and health of our students.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at

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