Washington — College students who consider excessive drinking a "rite of passage" were served a sobering notice Tuesday by a new study reporting that alcohol-related accidents kill 1,400 of their peers each year.
Alcohol consumption by college students contributes to 600,000 assaults, 500,000 injuries and 70,000 sexual assaults every year, according to the study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's Task Force on College Drinking.
In addition, more than 2 million students acknowledged in 2001 having driven a car with alcohol in their systems, and 400,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 reported having unprotected sex while under the influence.
"These numbers paint a picture of a deeply entrenched threat to the health and well-being of our young people," said Raymond Kington, acting director of the NIAAA.
Motor vehicle accidents account for the majority of the estimated 1,400 alcohol-related deaths each year. The study included students who were killed in car accidents and whose blood alcohol levels were both above and below the legal limit.
"The harm that college students do to themselves as a result of excessive drinking exceeds what many would have expected," said chief researcher Ralph Hingson of the Boston University School of Public Health in a prepared statement.
Task force members said they hoped the study would spur colleges and communities to combat what they called the "culture of drinking" on U.S. campuses.
The task force included college presidents, scientists and students convened by the NIAAA in 1998. The NIAAA is part of the National Institutes of Health. The task force data were derived from several national databases that track drinking and its consequences.
Males, incoming freshmen, members of the Greek system and athletes were cited as the heaviest drinkers. Students attending religious schools, two-year institutions, and historically black colleges and universities drink the least.
In recognition that drinking on campus is worrisome, national fraternities have scrambled to take corrective measures. The national Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity sends a team of nine staff members to each of its chapters on college campuses to conduct educational sessions on the dangers of alcohol.
"We have a minimum set of alcohol standards for our chapters that they need to comply with in order to retain their ties to the national fraternity," said Eric Wulf, executive director of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity.
In an effort to stem the flow of fraternal liquor, some schools, such as the University of Iowa, have forbidden fraternities and sororities from possessing or consuming alcohol in their chapter houses.
"This campus has eliminated the chapter house as a center for abusive drinking," said Phillip E. Jones, dean of students at the University of Iowa. "The major problem for us is bars that admit underage students."
The task force study says that simply educating students about the hazards of drinking doesn't work. Instead, it suggests informing students about behavior that leads to drinking, coupled with strict enforcement of minimum drinking-age laws and restrictions on the number of stores in college towns that can sell alcohol. Those steps together do help halt alcohol abuse, the task force said.