Features 03/06/02

The term 'binge drinking' being challenged by experts

By Krista Thornock

The use of the term "binge drinking" is being challenged as an effective measurement of problem drinking.

According to Jana Carling, prevention specialist for Utah State University's Student Wellness Center, using the term "binge drinking" is the latest controversy among professionals.

"I use the term high-risk drinking because it doesn't have such a negative connotation towards college students," Carling said.

According to Henry Wechsler and Toben F. Nelson of the Harvard School of Public Health, "Clinicians have historically used the term binge to refer to the drinking behavior of a person in the chronic phase of alcoholism, for whom a drinking binge is a prolonged period of intoxication or excessive heavy drinking that can last for days or weeks."

Wechsler, Toben and other clinicians and researchers object to the use of the term because among those groups binge drinking involves a comparatively smaller number of drinks in a shorter period of time.

The definition of binge drinking is not bound by a specific time span, Wechsler said.

Carling says that is why she thinks the term "binge drinking" is not appropriate -- because it doesn't take into consideration the time period in which the alcohol was consumed.

According to Dr. William DeJong of Boston University in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, language matters .

"The terminology we use has a powerful effect on what we think and feel about a problem, while also defining the boundaries of potential solutions that we will consider," DeJong said.

Wechsler, in a Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, said binge drinking is a five to four measure. He said binge drinking can be defined "as the consumption of five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more for women."

DeJong said, "By this measure, 50 percent of men and 39 percent of women were classified by Wechsler as binge drinkers."

"Wechsler's definition serves to distort the nature and scope of the problem," DeJong argued, "as it does not specify a time period over which the alcohol is consumed 'on a single occasion.' Four or five drinks 'in a row' over a several-hour period does not conform to the popular notion of a 'binge' -- as portrayed in Leaving Las Vegas or The Lost Weekend -- or even to the clinical definition."

David J. Hanson, professor of sociology at State University of New York writes, "As the editor of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol emphasizes, binge describes an extended period of time (typically at least two days) during which time a person repeatedly becomes intoxicated and gives up his or her usual activities and obligations in order to become intoxicated. It is the combination of prolonged use and the giving up of usual activities that forms the core of the clinical definition of binge."

"Perhaps we should define binge drinking as any intoxicated drinking that leads to certain harmful or destructive behaviors," Hansen wrote. "Perhaps we should at least require that a person have a certain minimum level of alcohol in the bloodstream as a prerequisite to be considered a binger. Perhaps we could even require that a person be intoxicated before being labeled a "binger." But one thing is certain: the unrealistic definitions being promoted by some researchers are misleading and deceptive at best."

According to Hanson people need to be skeptical about the next time the word "binge" is used. "Were the people in question really bingeing? By any reasonable definition, most almost certainly were not."

The use of the term "binge" is becoming a problem in characterizing this type of drinking, DeJong said.

"Repeatedly, I hear college officials talk about how students, looking for a reason not to listen to concerns about alcohol use on campus, will pounce on the definition of binge drinking used in the surveys. In essence, students are saying to these officials, 'If you think my having five drinks over the course of a five-hour party is a binge, then you don't know what you're talking about,'" DeJong said.

According to Wechsler the term binge is now used in the media as a catchword to designate college drinking leading to serious problems.

DeJong said the wide spread use of the term is an exaggerated view of student drinking. He said campus offcials should avoid using the terminology because it demonizes students instead of embracing the responsible majority of college students as an essential part of the solution.



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