Monday, April 10, 2000

         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
         local hospital.
              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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