It’s always been typical for college-age kids to have beer “keggers” or drink too much hard alcohol at parties, getting tipsy or even passing out from the imbibing. Frowned upon by authorities, it was largely a harmless activity as long as there were no automobiles involved.
That has all changed with the popularity of “binge drinking” by underage youth. Many hospital emergency rooms are seeing young people arriving with blood alcohol levels in the mid-.3s and even .4, which is four to five times the legal limit.
“That’s the level at which 50% of people die,” says Dr. Mary Claire O’Brien, an emergency medicine doctor and assistant professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina. “Ten years ago we only saw those levels in chronic alcoholics.”
Soda Pop with a “Kick”
The reason is that adolescents don’t consume alcohol for the same reason as adults. Their goal is not to sit around and enjoy a drink or two, but to get as drunk in as little time as possible. Unfortunately, now there are many more ways to accomplish this. The alcohol beverage industry as developed new recipes for combining more alcohol with caffeine, while appealing to the “soda pop” taste preferences of young people, has caused a huge increase in overdoses. In addition, the shift from beer to hard alcohol among teens and young adults has exacerbated the problem.
Even social media sites, such as Facebook, have contributed to the problem, as kids share high-alcohol-content drink recipes and their exploits with binge drinking with their Facebook friends.
This extreme drinking isn’t rare, either. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), about 90% of all teen alcohol consumption occurs in the form of binge drinking!
41% of high school seniors say they’ve had an alcoholic drink within the last 30 days, and by the time these kids are in college that number jumps to 72%.
Alcohol and Caffeine: A Dangerous Combination
The recent craze of combining alcohol with highly caffeinated energy drinks is a recipe for disaster. “The caffeine blocks the part of alcohol that makes you sleepy and might otherwise cause you to pass out,” says Dr. O’Brien. “This enables you to drink far more than you normally would, raising your blood alcohol level to dangerous heights.”
Four Loko, one of the most popular products to hit the market in the last few years, has caused so many problems that the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) stepped in and forced the manufacturers of that and other similar products to remove the caffeine. Four Loko has been reformulated and is back on the store shelves. It is still the equivalent of drinking four or five beers.
Young people are turning to hard liquor more, and away from beer, especially in drinking games and contests. Shots of hard liquor are far more intoxicating due to the much higher alcohol content, and the fact that the undiluted alcohol hits the stomach and gets into the bloodstream extremely quickly. While drinking beer would take quite a while to affect the binge drinker, shots of hard liquor can almost immediately be felt. For those participating in drinking games, that is the whole point.
What Parents Can Do
If you’re worried that your teen may be binge drinking, consider this:
• Know the warning signs. Signs of extreme drinking include a drop in grades, changes in behavior and mood, a new set of friends, memory lapses, and difficulty concentrating
• Have a talk. Ask your kids what kinds of experiences they’re having, make your personal values clear, and calmly lay out the risks.
• Establish a code word. Agree on a phrase they can say if they are in an uncomfortable situation and need to give you a signal to come and get them, no questions asked.
Sources: Parade Magazine, CDC, FDA