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Binge drinking reaches extreme among high school seniors

  • Bloomberg News
  • Published Tuesday, Sep. 24, 2013, at 12 a.m.

— Binge drinking is common among U.S. high school seniors with some reporting extremes of 15 or more alcoholic beverages in a row, a level of consumption that can lead to poisoning and death, a U.S. study found.

About 11 percent of those surveyed said they consumed 10 or more consecutive drinks in the past two weeks, while 5.6 percent imbibed at least 15 at a time, according to research published in JAMA Pediatrics. The United States defines binge drinking as consuming enough within two hours to reach a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent, usually five drinks for a man and four for a woman.

The study is the first to look at how many teens engage in extreme binge drinking, consuming 10 to 15 or more drinks at a time, said the lead study author, Megan Patrick. About 5,000 people under the age of 21 die each year from alcohol-related car crashes, homicides, poisonings and injuries such as falls and drownings, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health.

“We hope this study will bring awareness to this issue of high-risk alcohol drinking among adolescents,” said Patrick, a research assistant professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, in a Sept. 13 telephone interview.

Researchers in the study included 16,332 high school seniors in the U.S. A drink was 12 ounces of beer, four ounces of wine, a shot of liquor, a mixed drink or a 12- ounce wine cooler.

About 20 percent of the students said they consumed five or more drinks in the past two weeks, according to the paper.

Those who may be most prone to engage in extreme binge drinking were male, white, lived in rural areas, used other drugs, smoked cigarettes, missed school more often and had parents with a lower level of education, according to the research. More studies are needed to identify students at most risk of extreme binge drinking, Patrick said.

“I was actually a bit surprised by the finding,” said Ralph Hingson, director of the Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, in an interview. “At that level of consumption, clearly people can get very dangerous blood alcohol levels.”

While the number of teens who consumed five or more drinks at a time has declined since the 1970s and 1980s, findings that extreme binge drinking hasn’t fallen may help explain why hospitalizations for alcohol and drug overdoses are on the rise, Hingson said.

Efforts have been made to curb heavy drinking around specific events, like a 21st birthday, he said.

“By and large, this phenomenon is larger than that,” Hingson said. “It’s not just a single day, it’s not just spring break. People who are engaging in these behaviors tend to be frequent heavy drinkers.”

Doctors should be asking patients, particularly younger people, how much alcohol they are consuming, he said.

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