Drinking-Age Birthday Celebrations and Dangerous Binge Drinking

Posted on October 12th, 2014
Posted in Binge Drinking

Underage drinking is a problem that continues to rise. And multiple studies reveal that young people tend to overindulge on alcohol most during the week they turn the legal drinking age.

In a recent study published in the journal Addiction in July 2014, researchers from the University of Northern British Columbia examined five years of hospital records on admissions of patients between the ages of 12 and 30. In comparing the reason for the hospital admittance with the patient’s birth date, they found that alcohol-associated admissions were greatest during certain milestone events.

Birthdays: A Time of Alcohol Danger

In Ontario, the legal age for drinking is 19 years old. Around the time of their 19th birthday, alcohol-connected hospital admissions for girls increased 164 percent. Admissions for boys during their same birthday week rose by 114 percent. Young people in Ontario were twice as likely to visit the hospital because of drinking in the week that they became legal drinkers.

The same investigation yielded data on increased hospital admittances which occur around other birth dates as well. Although not nearly as high, alcohol-related spikes in hospitalizations were noted around age 14 for girls and age 16 for boys. The most alarming increases tended to happen during weeks when young people turned 19, 20, 21, 22, or 30 years old.

U.S. Studies Find Similar Patterns

This phenomenon isn’t limited to Canadians. In the U.S., the legal drinking age is 21 years, and a similar pattern of overdrinking takes place. Surveys of college students have found that 90 percent admit drinking on their 21st birthday until they reached a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 1.86. Most of the students report drinking more than they planned on their birthdays, and 12 percent say they consumed at least 21 drinks. And 50 percent report drinking more on their 21st birthday than on any other occasion.

Similar research has tracked American university students to see which intervention modalities showed the greatest likelihood of reducing heavy drinking on the students’ 21st birthdays. The students were interviewed seven days before their milestone birthday and were given a baseline assessment. The students reported planning to binge on the big day. Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks for males and five or more drinks for females on a single occasion.

Interventions Most Effective in Reducing Birthday Binge Drinking

Each of the university students was then randomly assigned to a specific intervention strategy. Some were assigned to an in-person intervention and others to web-based interventions. There were also interventions which combined the two. At the end of the study, interventions which involved in-person (friend) components were the most effective in reducing the birthday person’s BAC level along with other negative consequences related to drinking.

Finding strategies to prevent over-drinking on occasions when it may be anticipated has been referred to as Event Specific Intervention (ESP). College students face several key time frames or events during which heavy drinking is likely to occur. Not only on a 21st birthday, but New Year’s Eve, Spring Break, St Patrick’s Day and Halloween (among others) are specific events where risky drinking typically takes place. ESP is an intervention targeted to those kinds of events.

The benefits of ESP intervention include:

  • The drinking event is anticipated long in advance
  • The event lasts for a set amount of time
  • Attitudes toward event drinking often differ from attitudes toward drinking in general
  • An effective ESP at one event could be easily adapted to fit another event

Michigan State University developed a 21st birthday intervention after a student there died from consuming 24 drinks in celebration of his 21st birthday. The program sent birthday cards to students just before their 21st birthday encouraging sensible drinking and detailing the story of the student’s untimely death.

Most studies agree that friend-based interventions are the most effective. Whether in the U.S. or Canada, young people plan to overdrink in honor of specific events such as birthdays. Finding the most effective interventions to change that mindset and behavior is important and worthy of further investigation.

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