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Sweet-tasting alcohol a big factor in female binging

5/25/2010

Dayton Daily News

Flavored drinks, targeted advertising and the pressure to fit in lead to 40 percent spike.

By Jim DeBrosse

OXFORD — Rachel Boden just finished her freshman year at Miami University, but she said she’s already seen too much binge-drinking among her friends, many of them women.

“They do it to look good and fit in,” Boden said. “They think it looks cool. It’s not. I’ve been there and I’ve seen them.”

The irony is, many of her coed friends don’t even like the taste of alcohol. “They talk about what they can do to hide the taste. So if you have something that doesn’t taste like alcohol, you’re definitely going to drink more of it.”

Critics say that’s the intent behind the proliferation of fizzy, flavored and sweetened alcoholic beverages during the last 10 years, such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Silver, along with advertising aimed at young people.

They say both are factors in the dramatic increase in binge-drinking among college-age women, which was up 40 percent between 1979 and 2006, according to a study by the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Binge-drinking is defined as having had five or more drinks in a row within the past two weeks.

But officials at the Distilled Spirits Council say more recent figures from a national study by the University of Michigan show a decline in binge drinking among college women, from 37 percent in 2006 to 34 percent in 2008.

Trade officials point out that the Federal Trade Commission has twice investigated claims that flavored malt beverage marketing is targeted to youths “and both investigations concluded that these products were marketed to adults.”

Brandon Busteed, whose Outside the Classroom website sponsors an online alcohol education class taken by a third of all entering U.S. freshman, said surveys that accompany the course have shown a “flip flop” in coed’s attitudes toward the taste of alcohol during the last 10 years.

“In the past, one of the major reasons women said they didn’t drink is that they didn’t like the taste,” Busteed said. “Most recently, one of the top reasons they say they do drink is just the opposite — they do like the taste.”

The problem of binge-drinking among college women came to the fore in the Dayton area recently when three different sororities, one at the University of Dayton and two at Miami University, were suspended for having drunken parties this spring, resulting in property damage. The damaged sites were Top of the Market on Webster Street in downtown Dayton, Lake Lyndsay Lodge in St. Clair Twp. and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.

Sorority members are twice as likely to binge-drink as other college women, but whether sorority membership leads to more drinking or whether heavy drinkers are more likely to join a sorority “becomes a chicken-and-egg thing,” said Scott Walters, a behavioral scientist at the University of Texas School of Public Health and author of “Talking With College Students about Alcohol.”

“To some extent, both seem true,” Walters said. “Women who are risk-takers and more social and outgoing are more likely to drink. They’re also more likely to join a sorority.”

For whatever reason, more college women across the country are joining sororities, according to the National Panhellenic Conference, the umbrella group for 26 of the largest sororities in the country. New membership in the 26 sorority groups grew from 155,000 in 2001-03 to more than 175,000 in 2007-09, according to the NPC website. In 2009, the sorority groups had nearly 260,000 undergraduate members, with 90,000 new members joining in 2008-09 alone, the NPHC said.

Bethany Bruner, 20, a junior at Miami University, is not a member of a sorority but says many of her friends are. “There just seems to be this culture that if you drink you have to make it worth your while.” For those who are under-age, “you have to drink as much as you can and you have to do it before you get caught,” she said.

Bruner agreed that “alcopops” have appeal to young women, especially those who are too young to go to bars and order mixed drinks. “When you go out, the girls aren’t drinking beer,” she said. Often, she said, it’s mixed drinks with “lots of shots” of distilled liquor masked by the taste of fruit juices.

To save money and to avoid getting caught for under-age drinking, a growing number of college men and women are “pre-gaming” or “pre-partying” — terms for binge-drinking privately with friends before going out to a party or other social event for the night, Busteed said.

Surveys by Outside the Classroom show that many college women pregame their drinking because they think it’s safer to drink with a small group of friends, Busteed said. What the women don’t realize is that they are setting themselves up for disaster later that night if they continue to drink.

“Those who pregame are much more likely to experience negative consequences from their drinking,” Busteed said.

College women should keep in mind, too, that college men say their top reason for pregaming is they think it will increase their chances for having sex that night, Busteed said.

Angela Lawson, a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Dayton, said there’s entirely too much pressure on young women to drink at parties, especially from males. “If you don’t drink, you’re stuck up. It’s like, ‘Oh, she thinks she’s too good to drink with us.’ ”

Tricia Lammers, a sophomore at UD, agreed. “If you’re at a party and you’re not drinking, you’re sort of isolated.”

Even so, Lammers said she doesn’t drink. “I don’t see the benefit,” she said.