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Substance abuse called growing threat at colleges

Substance abuse on college campuses is nothing new, but it is taking a more extreme and dangerous form, with higher rates of frequent binge drinking and prescription drug abuse, and more negative consequences for students such as arrests and risky sexual behavior.

That's the portrait painted by a comprehensive report tying together a range of recent research on substance abuse by college students and new survey data.

The report by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University argues that substance abuse isn't an inevitable rite of passage for young adults. But the report concludes that a culture of excessive consumption has flourished on college campuses, and it calls on educators to take bolder stands to combat the drinking.

"If they make this a priority they can do something about it," said Joseph Califano, chairman and president of the center. Among other steps, he called on colleges and the NCAA to stop allowing alcohol advertising during high-profile events such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball tournament.

The report, being released today , relies largely on research that has appeared in various forms, but assembles it to emphasize findings particular to college students.

Among the highlights:

The proportion of students who drink (about 68 percent) and binge drink (40 percent) has changed little since 1993. But substantial increases have been made in the number of students who binge drink frequently (take five drinks at a time, three or more times in two weeks), who drink 10 or more times a month, and who get drunk three or more times in a month.

Though still used by far fewer students than alcohol, hundreds of thousands of more students are abusing prescription drugs including Ritalin, Adderall, and OxyContin than during the early 1990s. The proportion of students using marijuana daily has more than doubled to about 4 percent.

Analyzing outside survey data, the center calculated that 23 percent of college students meet the medical criteria for substance abuse or dependence. That is about triple the proportion in the general population.

Young adults in general have higher abuse rates, so a higher rate for college students is to be expected. But other research indicates that college students drink more than high school peers who don't go to college, said Henry Wechsler of the Harvard School of Public Health, who published similar findings in 2002.

"The percentage of kids who drink and binge drink is essentially the same between 1993 and 2005, but the intensity of the drinking has dramatically changed," Califano said.

Victor Hazard, a longtime administrator at the University of Kentucky, said he has noticed a change, with more students drinking simply to get drunk.

"To the extent there is such a thing as a social drinker, it was more of a meet-and-greet type of environment in the earlier years when I was here," said Hazard, Kentucky's associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students.

Carol Falkowski, director of research communications for the Hazelden Foundation, an addiction treatment and research group, said too many students are getting the message that excessive drinking is OK.

"It's getting more intense," she said. "Drinking games that were happening in private parties or houses or bonfires 10 years ago are now happening in public venues. That to me reflects a sort of larger acceptance of extreme drinking."