College Students' Alcoholic
Rite of Passage Can Be
Substance abuse: Campus drinking is down overall, but bingeing is
becoming more common, a study finds. Experts say it kills at least 50
collegians a year.
By JOHN M. GLIONNA,
Times Staff Writer
For 90 minutes, UC Davis senior David Thornton sat at an off-campus watering
hole and pounded shot after shot of alcohol as he and friends celebrated his 21st
birthday April 3.
But after he consumed 21 drinks in a college coming-of-age ritual known as "21
for 21"--downing everything from tequila to bourbon to whiskey as quickly as
possible--something went terribly wrong. Thornton passed out and later died at a
University officials across California say that while tragic, the fate of the young
fraternity member and former high school valedictorian is far from unique.
At least 50 college students nationwide die each year in drinking incidents on or
near campus, according to public health experts.
A recent Harvard University study suggests that while campus drinking is down
overall, the students who binge drink are consuming more alcohol than ever. And
there are more students who overindulge than ever before, according to the study.
"There are so many different names for it, but virtually every campus in the
United States deals with some kind of binge drinking practice, especially on a
student's 21st birthday," said Juan Gonzalez, vice president for student affairs at Cal
Poly San Luis Obispo. "Drinking a shot for every year of your life. You add it up,
that's close to suicide."
While universities and colleges nationwide have launched campaigns to call
attention to problem drinking, many say they are undercut by bars around campus
that offer nightly drink specials and that don't enforce drinking-age requirements.
Some schools such as UC Berkeley have introduced substance-free dormitories
and are trying to persuade some fraternities to abstain. Stanford University has peer
counselors in each dorm and has staged theatrical presentations called "Real World
Stanford," in which actors portray problem scenarios such as excessive drinking.
UC Davis officials said last week that their warnings to students on the dangers of
drinking will now include information on the health risks of "21 for 21."
Davis police said Thornton used little judgment while celebrating his birthday. The
student, a senior studying biological sciences with plans to attend law school, went to
a downtown bar with friends and fellow fraternity members, said Davis police
spokesman Lt. Don Hopkins.
"He was drunk but coherent," Hopkins said. "He was well aware of what he was
doing. He was calling out for more drinks."
Thornton passed out at the bar soon after his 21st drink. Friends tried to revive
him and later took him home for a shower to sober up. "It didn't work," Hopkins
said. "When they took him to the hospital, his lips were blue."
Thornton's blood-alcohol level was 0.50, six times California's legal driving limit
of 0.08. Officials say the 175-pound student choked on his vomit and stopped
Davis police are investigating whether controlled substances played a role in the
death, and are considering charges against the bar and several of Thornton's friends
who reportedly bought him drinks.
"But no matter what happens," Hopkins said, "this young man made the decision
to consume these drinks--nobody else."
Rod Thornton called his son's death "a tragedy that could happen to any young
"I hope David's story touches people in some way that changes their behavior," he
said. "There's no reason to tolerate alcohol abuse, particularly in a situation like the
one David faced that evening. We all have to start taking responsibility for this."
The study released last month by the Harvard School of Public Health found that
college binge drinkers are likely to be white, live in a fraternity house and have a
history of high school drinking. The study defined binge drinking as five drinks at one
sitting for men and four for women.
While the number of students who drank declined, the percentage of frequent
binge drinkers rose last year to 22.7% of the student population, up from 19.8% in
1993 and 20.9% in 1997, the study found.
But some question whether the campus drinking problem is overblown.
"The fact that 50 out of the nation's 14 million undergraduates die each year from
alcohol consumption isn't that great a number," said Jim Rothenberger, chairman of
the American College Health Assn.'s alcohol task force and a public health professor
at the University of Minnesota. "The vast majority of students don't drink
Some students agreed that binge drinking can be a problem.
"At the 21st birthday parties I've attended, it's a rule people are going to drink until
they're drunk," said Andrea Perera, editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin student
newspaper at UCLA. "But I haven't seen anyone sit at a table and get set up with
Laura Swift, a senior at UC Berkeley, has attended parties with alcohol and drug
"Drinking is really common in the dorms and at frat parties," she said. "You'll have
these parties which have a different drink or drug set up in every room. People spend
the night moving from one room to the next."
But Berkeley junior Bret Banfield said fraternities get a bad rap. The "risk
manager" at his fraternity watches for problems such as underage drinkers at parties.
Some fraternities have sober party monitors who look out for excess drinking at frat
events, he said.
"The biggest problem at our parties is freshmen who don't know their limits,"
Banfield said. "They come in and drink far too much, and get themselves into
In San Luis Obispo, authorities this month charged four fraternity members who
forced freshman pledges to drink excessive amounts of alcohol in a hazing ritual last
fall. Cal Poly Student Affairs Vice President Gonzalez said the school is still mourning
the death of a senior who two years ago got drunk with friends after his final exams
and whose body was later found curled up under a home extermination tent.
Rod Thornton stressed that his son was not a binge drinker.
"David was the son every father would want," he said. "He was a great student
and a good athlete. He was my best friend. But he was not a problem drinker."
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