Incoming college students who don’t plan to drink likely to remain low-risk drinkers

A team of our (smart) researchers from SMAHRT descended on Washington, D.C. last weekend for the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting. SMAHRT = Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team, which is based at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. This week, we’ll feature some of their new research. Megan Moreno, MD, leads the group and is a senior author on all of the research studies. Some of the researchers are based at other academic institutions, demonstrating the collaborative spirit of SMAHRT.

Hand rejects a glass of beer

Drinking is a common activity among college students, and excessive alcohol consumption has negative consequences such as unintentional injuries and assault. College freshmen are an interesting group to observe from a research angle, as heavy drinking increases significantly from pre-college to the first semester of college.

Why do college freshmen start to drink?

Most freshmen are on their own for the first time, with increased freedom and independence. They want to fit in with new friends who drink, or they may turn to alcohol to cope with stressful situations in a new environment. Students who were heavy drinkers in high school have been found to be especially at risk in college for heavy drinking and experiencing related negative consequences.

What happens to those students who enter college planning to refrain from drinking? Do they stay away from alcohol as they had planned, or do they give in to peer pressure and change their minds about drinking? If so, do they drink heavily or just socially?

Intention-to-drink study background

I am overseeing a study that is currently taking place at two large state universities in the U.S. It began in summer 2011, when the study participants had just graduated high school and were about to begin freshman year at one of the two universities.

The participants complete a phone interview during each summer of college, beginning with the summer before freshman year. The interview includes questions about the participants’ attitude toward alcohol, intention to drink, and lifetime and current use. So far, the students have completed the interview before freshman year (baseline) and the interview the summer after freshman year (follow-up).

I decided to examine just those students who, at the baseline interview, said that they were not current drinkers (meaning they did not drink in the past 28 days) and that they were not likely to consume alcohol. Slightly less than one-third, or 107 of 338 participants, met these criteria.

They were also asked what their attitude toward alcohol was on a scale of 0 to 6 (0=very negative). The average response was 2.1 at baseline and 2.8 at follow-up. Although this increase is significant, the average attitude at follow-up is still somewhat negative overall.

At follow-up, 29 percent of 107 study participants had become current drinkers.

Participants also completed the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) at the follow-up interview. The AUDIT is a questionnaire used to determine if a person’s alcohol consumption is harmful. A score of 7 or more indicates possible harmful drinking, whereas a score of 13 or more for females and 15 or more for males is likely to indicate alcohol dependence. The average score among the 107 participants was only a 2.2, with nine students scoring in the range that indicates harmful drinking.

After studying these results, we concluded that it is not unusual for students who enter college as non-drinkers who don’t plan to drink to begin drinking, but they generally remain at low risk for the negative consequences experienced by heavy drinkers. This could be an important population for future research to focus on in order to identify what characteristics these students have that make them refrain from drinking to the level of many college students.

Lauren Kacvinsky is a clinical research associate with the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.