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BOSTON — For some, it is as intrinsic to the college experience as living in a dorm, drinking alcohol. In some cases, lots of alcohol — even so much as to require medical attention.
That kind of drinking went on at UMass-Amherst this past March when an all-day alcohol ingestion event called the Blarney Blowout ended with more than two dozen students needing medical attention. The emergency department at Cooley-Dickinson Hospital in Northampton was reportedly overwhelmed that day with potential alcohol-poisoning cases.
All of the UMass students survived the Blarney Blowout. But, sadly, that has not always been the case on college campuses. In 2013, Anthony Barksdale, an 18-year-old freshman at Boston University, died after heavy drinking during a fraternity event.
“There’s just simply this belief that it happens to somebody else,” said Hank Nuwer, who authored several books on college binge drinking — especially as it relates to hazing.
Nuwer said that while alcohol has a long history on college campuses, drinking seemed to accelerate when the legal age went from 18 to 21 in the United States.
“Right around that time, you can start seeing the hazing increase, the alcohol-related deaths increase,” Nuwer said. “And maybe the simple reason for it is when you prohibit something it either becomes more attractive or it becomes necessary to break that rule, especially when you’re in a group or a fraternity.”
But there have been serious consequences to breaking that rule. The government reports about 22,000 college-age Americans wind up hospitalized each year because of alcohol use — as many as 1,500 die.
Nuwer maintains an online list of fatal hazing incidents in the U.S., going all the way back to 1838. Most of the more recent ones involve heavy ingestion of alcohol.
“(With pledging) the litmus test of manhood is to be able to drink a handle of alcohol — you’re talking about 40 ounces — plus shots of alcohol,” Nuwer said. “So you could have anywhere from 40 to 50 ounces or more that you’re consuming in 20 minutes, maybe an hour.”
Nuwer said that amount of alcohol would prove fatal to some students.
“The problem is that many do survive, and then the expectation is that the next group will survive,” said Nuwer. “This kind of invincible spirit is pervasive on all campuses.”
But invincibility is not guaranteed when it comes to alcohol and, in any case, isn’t apportioned equally — sometimes for the simple reason that young college students may lack drinking experience. Such was the case with Barksdale, according to his family at the time.
“If you’re not used to drinking alcohol, you are very susceptible to alcohol poisoning,” said Antje Barreveld, MD, co-founder of Newton-Wellesley Hospital’s Substance Use Service. “So it doesn’t take as much as it does for someone who already has an inherent tolerance.”