College Students and Binge Drinking

Harvard University Study Finds That More College Sports Fans Binge Drink Than Nonfan Students

Targeted Marketing and Advertising by the Alcohol Industry Is Likely To Be Influencing Fans’ Heavy Drinking

In the first national study of the drinking habits of college sports fans, findings released today from the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study show that more sports fans binge drink and have alcohol-related problems than nonfan students. In addition, schools with larger proportions of fans are more likely to have high rates of binge drinking, which lead to large numbers of students who suffer the secondhand effects of others people’s drinking. These findings come as the college football season is coming to an end—after the recent riots at Ohio State University—and in the midst of the college basketball season, which closed last year with riots at the University of Maryland.

The study will appear in the January/February issue of the journal Addictive Behaviors and was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The authors, Toben F. Nelson and Henry Wechsler, PhD, define sports fans as survey respondents who indicate that attending sports events was either “Important” or “Very Important.” The study is based on questions from the 1999 Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, which surveyed more than 14,000 college students at 119 nationally representative, four-year colleges in 39 states. Today’s findings compare the responses of 3,445 student sports fans with those of 8,405 nonfan students.

“We know that student athletes binge drink more than nonathletes,” said lead author Toben Nelson. “But until now, no one has taken a systematic look at fans. It turns out that fans are similar to athletes in their extreme drinking behavior, and that behavior has played out the last few weeks in the form of riots after a game win or loss.”

Nelson and Wechsler found that among students that drink alcohol, some 53 percent of sports fans usually binged when drinking, compared with 41 percent of male and 37 percent of female nonfans. In addition, fans were more likely to have drunk on 10 or more occasions in the past 30 days and consider drinking “to get drunk” an important reason for drinking. Fewer fans than nonfans abstained from drinking alcohol (17 percent vs. 20 percent).

As a result of their heavier drinking, fans are more likely to experience a full range of problems related to drinking, from academic problems to sexual violence.

For example, among students who drank any alcohol in the previous 30 days, 15 percent of fans reported having had an alcohol-related injury, compared with 10 percent of nonfans.

Students at sports schools (campuses where at least 40 percent of the survey respondents were fans) were more likely to fall prey to the secondhand effects of others’ binge drinking. Nearly half of students at sports schools experienced three or more secondhand effects, such as being assaulted, having study time disrupted, or property vandalized.

“The strong tie of sports to a heavy drinking lifestyle at American colleges is no accident,” said Henry Wechsler, PhD, principal investigator of the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study. “It has taken many millions of dollars in advertising at sports events and ongoing financial support of sports programs at many colleges over many decades to forge that link. Colleges should think twice before allowing it to continue” (

When the researchers analyzed nondrinking activities, such as television viewing, they found that more sports fans reported spending at least two hours a day watching television, a pattern that could be associated with higher levels of drinking.

The study found that a larger proportion of student fans (38 percent) took advantage of low-priced drink specials at bars than nonfans (24 percent). Sports fans also reported taking advantage of special promotions by beer companies more often than their nonfan peers (19 percent vs. 11 percent).

“Television sports programming contain significantly more alcohol promotion than other programming. Therefore, fans are being hit with proalcohol messages at a high rate and likely have been since they were young,” Nelson said. “The NCAA and other sports governing bodies need to consider these connections when partnering with sponsors for their events.”

“Schools should look at the number of bars and taverns around their campus with sports-related themes that target college students. Universities have at least some ability to influence the number of outlets and their serving practices,” Nelson said.

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