How Much Is Enough?

Duke's freshly-tanned spring breakers are back on campus, loaded with wild tales of drunken Cancun nights and beer-for-breakfast cruises. But storytellers beware: those six tequila shots you said you had before venturing on that karaoke stage probably had closer to the equivalent of eight standard-sized shots.

A study on undergraduate drinking habits found that Duke students' perception of what constitutes a single beer, mixed drink, or shot is significantly larger than a standard-sized alcoholic beverage used in typical alcohol consumption surveys.

Researchers found that when students were asked to pour what they thought was a 12-ounce beer and 1.25-ounce shot, they over-poured beer by 25 percent and shots by 26 percent. Most significantly, students poured 80 percent too much alcohol into what they believed was a single mixed drink.

"Students don't know what a drink is--or even just the definition of a drink," said Aaron White, primary investigator of the study and assistant research professor in the department of psychiatry. "Duke students, who are some of the brightest kids on the planet, don't know how many ounces are in a glass of wine or a shot [of liquor]."

White also noted that the serving-size misperceptions of alcoholic beverages the study found are not just a Duke-specific problem; if the study had been done at any other college, he suspected students similarly would be unable to accurately pour a standard-sized beer or shot. Students' heavy-handed alcohol pouring habits scratch at the surface of dangers involved in college drinking. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported in 2002 that alcohol-related activities were linked to at least 1,400 college student deaths and 500,000 injuries each year.

"We're a society obsessed with serving sizes, but yet, alcohol is our number one drug problem," White said. "It kills more young people than all other drugs combined and we haven't had a dialogue about what a serving size [of alcohol] actually is--that's the problem!"

The results of the study also suggest that current data on college drinking habits--largely based on self-reported consumption surveys--is fundamentally flawed. Literature on student alcohol consumption defines binge drinking as four or five drinks in one night--a threshold that may actually be closer to six or seven drinks if students are underestimating how much alcohol they consume, White said.

"I think the implications are truly drastic in terms of any research that has been done on college drinking and college trends," said junior Courtney Kraus, who played a large role in the collection of the pour study data. "What it means to be a binge drinker or not--all of these things need to be reevaluated."

Additionally, the study found that women were particularly susceptible to inaccurately reporting how much alcohol they consumed because they tended to drink more mixed drinks, which are poured in unmarked containers like Solo cups.

"Students don't talk about drinks in terms of ounces," said senior Lori Kestenbaum, who was also involved in the research. "Students think of a mixed drink in terms of one mixed drink, not [1.25] ounces of alcohol... [and] the actual perception of what a student thought a mixed drink was, was really the alarming part."

Jeff Kulley, staff psychologist at Counseling and Psychological Services and an advisor to PARTY, the alcohol awareness peer education group on campus, said he has also found that students pouring drinks free-handedly tend to overestimate the size of a standard drink. During an educational activity called the "bartender exercise," Kulley said it was not uncommon for students to pour a quantity that would equal four to six drinks rather than one standard drink.

"We hope that we're educating people [who] don't really know what a standard drink is, and the hope is that they'll adjust downward," he said.

A follow-up study by White's research group, however, suggests that education efforts are not targeting enough students. When asked to define what constitutes a standard alcohol serving, with the exception of beer, students tended to answer incorrectly.

"This is not a failure of the students, but a failure on the part of educators and prevention specialists and the beverage industry," White said. "This tells us that we have done a poor job as educators and universities as a society on teaching students what a drink is."

But people are going to drink--no matter what, said senior Julie Flom, who worked on the study. The key, she said, is to try to push for awareness and get more students to realize how much they are actually drinking.


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