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It seems like EVERY FALL, when the kids start college we read about college freshmen who die of alcohol poisoning -- usually the result of a fraternity hazing. Why does this continue to happen?

My son just began his freshman year -- what should I have done to prepare him for this? What can I do now? Should we call and talk with him; should I send him all the clippings? I feel that I must do something.

I share your concerns, worries, and desire to do something. My own 19-and-21 year-old college kids have alarmed me with binge drinking horror stories from their respective schools. They are surprised there haven't been more deaths. Of course we don't read about all the close calls, the frantic trips to the emergency room. We don't expect our college sons and daughters to die from alcohol poisoning. Sadly, a 1995 Harvard University study revealed that most campuses are not addressing their students' binge drinking.

Binge drinking is part of today's student culture. It's not social drinking as you and I know it --slowly sipping our drinks and snacking over the course of a social evening. Kids treat binge drinking like an extreme sport. Drink until you pass out. Rapid-fire drinking until you vomit (then start up again). Until you're totally wasted. Sometimes, tragically, until you're dead-drunk.

Binge drinking is an event. It's weekly entertainment. It's a challenge (a macho one for boys). How much booze can I throw down as quickly as possible? It's not just a college fraternity practice (although students in frats and sororities average 15 drinks per week compared to 5 drinks by other students). It's a major problem with college and high school students.

Kids have told me it's fun to do and fun to see. Lots of laughs talking about it the next day. Who passed out playing a chug-a-lug game. How much someone vomited after sucking down a six-pack in record time. "Any downside?" I've asked. "Just a wicked hangover," I'm told. Tell that to the families who have lost a loved-one to binge drinking.

You wonder why they keep drinking dangerously, even after these deaths. Because it's part of how their culture, their group, and their friends use alcohol. Because it's cool. Because they see these deaths as freak accidents. Because they are 19 and immortal. Because above all, they want desperately to belong. Unlike other tribal ways (music choices, dress, personal appearance), binge drinking is risky, unhealthy, and sometimes lethal.

College fraternities have institutionalized binge drinking, often making it a military-like admission requirement to the inner sanctum. Those most vulnerable to alcohol poisoning seem to be eager-to-please underclassmen who are first-time drinkers. These kids have no experience or frame of reference to judge the health/death risks of how much is too much. This ignorance combined with a longing to be accepted in their new college world is easily exploitable. Fraternities capitalize on this.

You ask what you should have done to prepare your son for these dangers. Since alcohol will probably enter all our children's lives, we must provide them alcohol education long before high school or college. We need to drink responsibly, share our values about alcohol consumption, and give them hard-core facts that could save their lives. We could try these for starters:

  • Don't start drinking if you're really angry, anxious, or depressed.
  • Learn your own personal signs that you need to stop drinking -- slurred speech, dizziness, giddiness.
  • You can't tell how outrageously drunk you're getting if you're drinking too fast. Slow down and let the alcohol's effects spread over a long enough period of time.
  • Friends don't let friends drink and drive. Friends also don't let friends drink dangerously.
  • Know how much is too much.
  • Drinking a fifth of hard liquor (or its equivalent in beer and wine) over an hour or two gives you a 1-in-2 chance of dying, according to Dr. Charles J. McCabe, Associate Chief of Emergency Services at Massachusetts General Hospital.
  • Don't allow any person or group to intimidate you into binge drinking. Nobody who really cares about you will do this.
You've also asked what you should say to your freshman son. You have to talk to him about your concerns. It's wise initially to do more listening than talking. Don't preach or forbid. Don't try to scare him out of binge drinking. Engage him in casual conversations now and in the future (don't make this like the infamous, one-shot "birds and bees" lecture) by asking him open-ended questions: What do you think about the drinking you see on campus? Do you think kids know that binge drinking can kill them? Why do kids binge drink?

Demonstrate that you value and respect his opinions and answers. Let him know you believe he has good judgment when it comes to drinking. Don't be afraid to say that these college drinking deaths make you worried about how he's handling the pressure to binge drink. Whether it's a fraternity or circle of friends, assure him that he doesn't have to prove his worth to them by drinking dangerously.

Let's hope we can prevent further binge drinking deaths. This behavior is extremely difficult to turn around and to make "uncool". Students, parents, and colleges all share responsibility in this matter. Demand that your son's college address binge drinking with an ongoing, peer-based effort. It's not going away on its own.

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