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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Survey Reveals 21st-Birthday Booze Ritual is Growing

Drinking 21 Shots On 21st Birthday Gains Popularity

According to new research, drinking 21 or more alcoholic beverages to celebrate the 21st birthday appears to be far more common than first thought.

To celebrate the birthday milestone, it is believed that more than four out of every five American 21-year-olds drink alcohol. But according to University of Missouri researchers, many young adults are not just drinking to celebrate — they are drinking to extremes.

According to the research to be published in The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, among those students who drank alcohol to celebrate their 21st birthdays, 34 percent of the men and 24 percent of the women admitted to consuming 21 or more drinks. The report is the largest-known study of the drinking ritual, which often includes shots of alcohol. In the study, students were tracked for four years and asked a variety of questions about their drinking behavior over their college years. Researchers say the data likely do reflect the drinking culture at large public universities.

Researchers estimate that of those who drank on their birthdays, 50 percent of the men and more than a third of the women experienced blood alcohol levels of 0.26 or higher. That is the level at which a person is severely impaired and at risk for choking on vomit or suffering serious injury. The consistency of the answers indicates that students are consuming massive quantities of alcohol when they celebrate a 21st birthday.

The study's lead author, Kenneth Sher, professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said, "I think a lot of people view this as a feel-good rite of passage and don't calibrate what a big risk it is.''

Those concerned have been searching for ways to curb the excessive drinking common on the 21st birthday. Indeed, the ritual seems to be growing as young drinkers post videos and photos of the drinking binges on YouTube or Flickr or social networking sites like MySpace.

Alcohol poisoning is a major worry. Several factors determine the body's ability to metabolize alcohol, including gender, weight, the type of alcohol, if the person vomits during the binge and the time period during which the alcohol is consumed. In some cases, however, as little as 10 drinks can push blood alcohol levels to 0.30, the point at which the respiratory system slows enough to trigger potential death.

An associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors in Seattle is studying Internet-based interventions. Clayton Neighbors hopes he will convince more young people to moderate their 21st birthday drinking. In a study to be presented at the American Psychological Association conference this year, those who were given Web-based information about drinking prior to their 21st birthday drank less than students who were not given the information.

The intervention group was asked how much they planned to drink on their 21st birthday, and how real they believed extreme drinking really is. The interactive tool then revealed that only a minority of students drink 21 or more drinks. Based on the amount he or she planned to drink, it also calculated a student's blood alcohol level. Giving students more information about drinking appeared to result in blood alcohol levels that were roughly 25 percent lower than the group that wasn't privy to the information.

"One of the problems is a lot of these kids don't realize that 21 drinks in an hour can kill you,'' Dr. Neighbors said.

Be Responsible About Drinking (B.R.A.D.), a group started by family and friends of Michigan State University student Bradley McCue, who died from extreme drinking on his 21st birthday, sends out birthday cards before 21st birthdays to warn young people about the dangers of alcohol poisoning. The site also features numerous charts showing how various numbers of drinks affect blood alcohol levels.

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