From binge drinking to blacking out, the disturbing epidemic putting America’s kids in danger

On America’s college campuses, there are epidemics we talk about and those we don’t. There’s sexual assault. There are fraternity hazing deaths. And in both cases, the attention of the nation usually turns to these issues only after a tragedy has occurred… after Penn State freshman Timothy Piazza dies from consuming 18 drinks in 82 minutes… after Brock Turner sexually assaults an unconscious woman behind a dumpster at Stanford…

Look deeper, however, and these epidemics have something in common: the pervasive and problematic drinking culture among American youth.

“When you have almost 2,000 kids a year dying that are college-aged kids on college campuses, I’m surprised that those statistics are not out there in a bigger way and that colleges aren’t owning that a little bit more,” says clinical social worker Julie Fenn in the CBSN Originals documentary, “Drinking Culture: American Kids and the Danger of Being Cool.” “If there were 2,000 kids dying for, you know, a brain disease or the flu or something, we would be all over that.”

In the current pop culture environment, binge drinking has not only become normalized, it’s become a marker of social status.

“People do have that conception that the more you can drink, the cooler you are,” says Alex Artaza, a college student at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

“Girls who could handle their alcohol are seen as a lot cooler and a lot more interesting than girls who can’t,” concurs Kaeli Van Cott, a 23-year-old social media manager in New York City. “People would encourage in college like, ‘We need to drink, we need to pregame, we need to go out.’ … Guys who can handle their alcohol were seen as cool and girls who could keep up were invited in.”

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as four drinks for women and five drinks for men over the span of two hours. In the United States today, however, college students often consume two or three times that amount.

And while it used to be that men were much more likely to binge drink than women, that gender gap is rapidly closing, with rates of alcohol use and binge drinking now on the rise in women and girls.

For the documentary, “Drinking Culture,” CBSN Originals visited the University of Wisconsin–Madison, one of the most notorious party schools in America, to speak with students there about the amounts and sorts of drinking that are now considered normal.

Gretchen Schroder, a 21-year-old senior, told producers that the most she’s had to drink in a night was 15 drinks. When pressed on what that was like, and whether or not she remembered that night, she shook her head, laughed a little bit, and replied, “No. I blacked out.”

The NIAAA defines blacking out as a period “of amnesia during which a person actively engages in behaviors like walking and talking but does not create memories for these events as they transpire. …  Depending on how impaired the brain regions involved in decisionmaking and impulse control are, the missing events could range from mundane behaviors, like brushing teeth, to dangerous and traumatic events like driving a car, getting into a fight, or committing — or being the victim of — a sexual assault or other crime.”

While many parents probably blissfully assume that this sort of alcohol-induced stupor is a rarity, all of the young Americans who appear in the CBSN Originals doc, “Drinking Culture,” told producers that they have either blacked out themselves or witnessed their peers blacking out on numerous occasions.

“I’ve seen a lot of people black out,” says Van Cott. “I can’t even give you a defined number. … People brag about that as if it’s something that’s cool to do. Like, ‘I’m totally going to black out tonight.'”

Not only does this sort of normalized underage drinking behavior put American teens at greater risk of physical injury and sexual assault, experts point out that there are biological consequences to drinking in excess before the brain is done developing.

“What we’ve seen with data is that if you start drinking at age 13 or 14, drinking full drinks, that that is associated with a five times greater risk of developing an alcohol use problem or disorder compared to if you start at age 21 or older,” explains Dr. Sion Harris, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

“We’re also seeing that there are impacts on the development of what we call wiring of the brain. One of the things that really is important that’s happening in the brain during the adolescent years is kind of the connecting up of different brain areas. And the reason that that’s so important is that in order for us to have a really sharp brain, fast processing, and healthy functioning, different parts of the brain have to work together, and that is developing through adolescence,” she explained.

“When the brain is exposed to things like alcohol, marijuana, other drugs, that seems to impact how the brain gets wired up and that can impact our ability to learn, our ability to make smart decisions, our ability to regulate our emotions.”

Binge drinking affects young Americans both in ways we can see and in ways we can’t, and advocates say we really need to take a hard look at the root of the problem.

“We have to challenge and change that culture, that thinking that it’s normal behavior,” said Julie Fenn.

And she adds a cautionary note for parents: “I think there is that stereotypic belief that, ‘not my kid. I’m a good parent. My kids would never do that.’ I think all of our kids are at risk. And I can say that honestly, as a parent of three, it doesn’t matter what your profession is, no child is protected.”

Removal of alcohol restrictions brings trouble to Kugluktuk

A greater volume of alcohol is flowing into Kugluktuk and the RCMP has had respond to a growing number of alcohol-related complaints.

There were 143 more police files relating to liquor in the first five months of 2019 than in the first five months of 2018. Alcohol restrictions were officially repealed in the community on Dec. 14, following an Oct. 22 plebiscite in which 60.8 per cent of voters were in favour.

“We expected it to hit a peak sometime this spring but we’ve never seen that peak drop yet,” said Mayor Ryan Nivingalok. “Some people have got to remember that they have to learn how to consume their alcohol and drink responsibly.”

Data from the territorial Department of Finance shows a rising volume of alcohol being ordered into the community since December, reaching 2,194 litres in March.

Kugluktuk MLA Mila Kamingoak said she has advocated in the legislative assembly for education campaigns in schools and through community meetings to give people a better understanding of the dangers of alcohol and cannabis. She’d also like to see posters and commercials in place to help create broader awareness.

“It’s something we have to learn from as we go along,” Kamingoak said.

Nivingalok said he remains hopeful this is a period of “growing pains.” He referred to Baker Lake MLA Simeon Mikkungwak, who told Nunavut News that he was informed by residents in Rankin Inlet that it took a while for things to “settle down” in that community after alcohol restrictions were lifted.

Baker Lake voted in January 2018 to remove its liquor limitations and the measure took effect in April. Mikkungwak said the RCMP and Family Services staff were “overwhelmed” by the resulting workload in the following months. Although he said it wasn’t “all negative,” he said there were more visibly drunken people in the streets.

Prior to Dec. 14 in Kugluktuk, the Alcohol Education Committee, comprising local residents, could limit orders to a maximum of two 60-ounce bottles and two 40-ounce bottles of spirits, 48 cans of beer

and four litres of wine every two weeks. The committee was disbanded when liquor restrictions were lifted.

Nunavut’s Liquor Act allows the Department of Finance, which oversees liquor permits, to deny a permit to individuals on a prohibited list, which is generated through the courts. However, it is very rarely used, and there is currently no one on that list.

Several other Kugluktuk residents declined to speak on the record about changes they’ve seen in the community over the past several months.

“I’m hoping it levels out,” Nivingalok said of the increase in alcohol-related criminal complaints.

Fact file
Alcohol-related complaints to the Kugluktuk RCMP
2019 (compared to same month in 2018)
January – 60 files (up 37)
February – 48 files (up 19)
March – 108 files (up 54)
April – 57 files (up 20)
May – 72 files (up 13)
[the lifting of liquor restrictions took effect on Dec. 14]
Source: RCMP

Alcohol ordered into Kugluktuk (in litres)
September 2018 – 1,181
October – 1,397
November – 1,446
December – 1,640
January 2019 – 1,805
February – 1,840
March – 2,194
*not including the personal exemption allowing residents to bring up to three litres of spirits, nine litres of wine or 26 litres of beer into the community with them on flights.
Source: Department of Finance


Removal of alcohol restrictions brings trouble to Kugluktuk

Ford government’s proposed alcohol policies will increase harms, researchers say

TORONTO – A group of researchers is sounding the alarm over the Ontario government’s planned changes to alcohol policy, saying the relaxed rules will lead to more consumption that can bring an increase in crime, hospitalizations and even death.

The warning comes in a report from Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research.


Titled “Canadian Alcohol Policy Evaluation,” the report finds that until the new rules were announced, Ontario had some of the most effective alcohol policies in the country when it came to reducing harm.

However, researchers say the changes recently announced by the Progressive Conservative government – including wider availability, increased hours of sale and legalizing tailgate parties – will lead to increased harms.


Ford government’s proposed alcohol policies will increase harms, researchers say

Ontario has an alcohol crisis – and the government is making it worse

Daniel Myran is a family physician based in Ottawa who is completing a residency in Public Health and Preventive Medicine at the University of Ottawa, and recently completed a Master’s of Public Health at Harvard with a research focus on the impact of alcohol-control policies in Canada.

If you had to find a topic that Kathleen Wynne and Doug Ford would agree upon, increasing access to cheap alcohol probably wouldn’t be your first guess. Yet dismantling decades-old policies used to protect Ontarians from alcohol harms – everything from alcohol-related car crashes to liver disease – seems to be one of the few bipartisan issues left in Ontario.

In 2015, the Wynne government relaxed alcohol sales regulations by allowinggrocery stores in Ontario to begin selling beer, wine and cider, a policy that has resulted in a 25 per cent increase in the number of stores where alcohol can be purchased. And what the Liberals started on this file, the Ford government seems determined to finish: it committed to allowing alcohol sales in corner stores, introduced “buck-a-beer” last September to decrease the minimum price of beer by 25 per cent, cancelled a planned 4-per-cent increase in beer prices in October, and increased the weekly legal limit on the hours of alcohol sales from stores like the LCBO and Beer Store by 8 per cent in December. “It is time to acknowledge that Ontario is mature enough for this change and ready to join other jurisdictions in making life a little more convenient,” Mr. Ford said on the campaign trail.

His government’s recent budget has delivered on that promise and more. The near future holds a large expansion of the number and type of alcohol stores across Ontario with a focus on privatization. The government will also allow drinking alcohol in parks, tailgating at sporting events, earlier opening hours for bars, and relaxing alcohol-advertising rules – all described as “early wins for the people.”

Maybe Premier Ford is right. Perhaps as a society we can handle a bit more choice in a responsible manner. These are popular decisions too, of course: who can argue against increased consumer choice and cheaper … well, anything? And at first glance, it can be hard to imagine why having your nearest grocery store or corner store sell beer would result in harms from alcohol.

But a large body of Canadian and international evidence has shown that one of the best ways to prevent alcohol harms is to set limits on how cheaply and widely it can be sold. That also includes research that my colleagues and I recently conducted on the Ontario Liberal government’s decision to allow beer and wine sales in grocery stores. When we compared the two years before and two years after the policy took effect, we found a 17.8 per cent increase in the number of emergency-room visits due to alcohol, compared to the 6.2 per cent growth of all types of ER visits. Areas of the province that had grocery stores selling alcohol had a 6 per cent greater increase in the rate of ER visits due to alcohol than areas that did not. And this was not a simple correlation; we accounted for differences in age, sex, income, and the possibility that grocery stores that started selling alcohol were located in areas that had more ER visits due to alcohol at baseline.

Ontarians’ relationship with alcohol is already spinning out of control. The most recent available data, from 2014, estimates that alcohol was directly responsible for 5,147 deaths in Ontario, or just over 5 per cent of all deaths that year. In the same year there were 32,897 hospitalizations due to alcohol across Ontario – representing a big obstacle to ending hallway medicine, as the government has promised to do. Alcohol use has a high cost: Researchers estimate that in 2014 Ontario spent $5.34 billion, or $391 per person, covering the health, lost productivity, and legal costs from alcohol – and that’s a lot more than the $2.12 billion that the Ontario government received from the LCBO in 2018.

Nearly every Canadian knows someone who suffers or has suffered from an alcohol-use disorder. Now imagine that person having to struggle with the decision of whether or not to buy alcohol every time they go shopping or take a walk though their neighbourhood. Add on everyone making more impulsive decisions to buy alcohol, or making it easier to grab a last-minute six-pack or bottle of wine, and it starts making sense that when alcohol is more available, people will drink more – and potentially end up in the ER.

So yes, we can likely expect consequences from Premier Ford’s changes around Ontario’s alcohol policy, which essentially encourage higher-volume and heavier drinking. This pattern of change unfortunately predates the current government. At this point we can only hope that sometime in the near future, we sober up, reverse course and double-down on measures that we know reduce alcohol harms. Critics will be all too eager to paint such policies as paternalistic – the last gasps of a nanny state – but maybe adopting healthy and responsible public policy, rather than increasing ease of access to alcohol, would actually be the truest sign of a mature Ontario.

Ban on alcohol cuts violent crime in half in Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation

An alcohol ban instituted in Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation after 18-year-old Marcus Spence was beaten to death Feb. 20 has resulted in a 50 per cent drop in violent crime in the community, the RCMP told the CBC.

Spence had just found out that he was going to be a father a few weeks before he was killed, according to his mother Kelly Spence. 
Four men from Nelson House – Waylon Alfred McKay, Patrick Linklater, Gerald Lee Spence and Russell Sinclair – were arrested in February and early March in connection with the killing

Father of UC Irvine freshman believes hazing ritual caused son’s death

The father of a UC Irvine freshman found unresponsive following a fraternity party earlier this year believes his son’s death was the result of a hazing ritual.

Noah Domingo died at an off-campus residence around 3:30 a.m. on Jan. 12 following a fraternity party the night before. Authorities did not receive a 911 for another six hours and responded to the home around 9:30 a.m.

A witness told the operator the 18-year-old from La Crescenta “just drank too much” but his father, Dale Domingo, contends his son died during a Sigma Alpha Epsilon “big brother night” ritual.

“We have discovered the horrifying truth about fraternity hazing,” he told CBS News. “Noah was compelled to guzzle a so-called ‘family drink’ to become part of his big brother’s family. It is why fraternities openly refer to this type of ritual as being one of the deadly nights.”

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department Coroner division on Monday announced Noah died of alcohol poisoning with a blood-alcohol level of 0.331 — which is more than four times the legal limit. His cause of death was ruled “accidental acute ethanol intoxication.”

“We remain shocked and saddened by Noah’s tragic death, and we offer our deepest sympathies to the Domingo family for their loss,” the university said in a statement. “His death brings an urgent focus on alcohol and substance abuse, from the cultural pressures that encourage unhealthy behavior to policies designed to mitigate danger.”

The national council of Sigma Alpha Epsilon voted to suspend its UCI chapter in wake of Noah’s death. On Feb. 21, they voted to shut it down indefinitely.

Authorities in Irvine are still investigating the student’s death and have not confirmed whether hazing was a factor.

Alcohol kills more people than all other drugs combined in Oregon

Paul Lewis, MD, the health officer for Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties, says in Oregon alcohol kills far more people than all other drugs combined.

Oregon’s rate of alcohol-related deaths is nearly twice as high as the national average. And in that category, the state ranks fifth worst in the country according to new data from the Trust for America’s Health. Washington ranks No. 10.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says excessive alcohol use leads to approximately 88,000 deaths per year in the U.S. Nationwide there were more than 70,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017.

Lewis also says where you live can determine what causes your death.

“For example, we talk about drinking and smoking and exercise and food. If you live in a place with no grocery stores, your diet may not be very good,” he told a KATU reporter Friday, saying many areas like that exist in Northeast and Southeast Portland. “Also, if you live in a neighborhood without sidewalks or without street lights, you might not get much exercise.”

The Portland area has an alcohol-friendly culture with many people enjoying local beer and wine.

But Lewis says, watch out.

“It’s really unsafe drinking, that’s the problem. We don’t think there’s any safe smoking but drinking can be done in moderation,” he explained. “Binge drinking is five drinks for a male and four for a female at a given setting. Oregon is above the national average on all of those things.”

Statewide, Lewis pointed out that the number of alcohol-related deaths per 100,000 people has climbed dramatically in Oregon from 31 in 2001 to 43 in 2015. By comparison, in 2015 there were about 12 overdose deaths from all drugs per 100,000 people across the state.

“Deaths from opioids are dramatic. Someone’s alive one minute, stops breathing and is dead a few minutes later,” Lewis said. “Deaths from things like alcohol are a lot more subtle. They take years to develop and the cause isn’t often attributed to alcohol. It’s attributed to a liver disease or bleeding or stroke. But the underlying cause is overuse of alcohol.”

Authorities say an average of 124 people commit suicide each year in Multnomah County. Fewer than half those who carry out suicide have a known mental health condition, according to county health officials, but about three-in-four people who kill themselves have had trouble with drugs or alcohol.

“And a large number of traffic-related injuries and deaths have substances related as do homicides,” Lewis explained.

Lewis, who recently reported this data to Multnomah County commissioners, said death rates in multiple categories are higher among people of color than among white people.

“Even after we’d done all the analysis, we’re left with the uncomfortable conclusion that racism, discrimination of all kinds and inequality lead to stress and despair that build up over time and lead to increased death rates,” Lewis said.

Multnomah County is considering restricting the sale of tobacco and banning the sale of flavored tobacco.

County Chair Deborah Kafoury asked the public health division to come up with new regulations after hearing a briefing from Lewis and other health officials on preventable deaths. One of the possible regulations would restrict the sale of tobacco near schools, but it’s unclear at this point by how much.

Some commissioners are also targeting flavored tobacco, calling it an open invitation to kids.