Student drinking is not a problem. Can it become one?

One of the hallmarks of student life is drinking. Although most of us don’t get into too much trouble with it, does university and its drinking culture provide a potential breeding ground for future alcoholics? I set out to find some answers.

Being an international student coming to study in London, my mother was scared of one thing above all else. Was it crime? Cost of living? Loneliness? No. In fact, what my mother feared most was this country’s rampant student drinking culture.

We have all been lectured on this before; on the dangers of binge-drinking, succumbing to peer pressure and wasting all our student loan on alcohol, etc etc. It is been repeated time and time again by many holier-than-thou parents-turned-doctors sending their precious children off to university. Yet the truth of university life is that we enjoy ourselves and usually come out the other end unscathed. We hear so much about how we’re corroding our livers down to a thin sliver of fat that it is almost a surprise that the majority of students, besides occasionally emptying out their dinner on the pavement, walk out of university in one piece.

That’s why I see no need to look further into the dangers of drinking itself. Scientists and journalists alike have been there, done that, meaning we know that students drink a lot and that one drink too many could land you in the hospital. It makes a lot of sense when environmental factors at university like peer pressure and accessibility weigh heavily on your alcohol consumption. Studies find that the vast majority of students feel that regular alcohol consumption is needed to “fit in”, especially when coping with such a massive life change.

Alcohol is also very easy to access and affordable for students, especially in a country where alcohol consumption is less structured around meals than in other western countries. Furthermore, psychiatric conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety, which are more present among students than other adults, can encourage individuals to self-medicate mood swings through alcohol. The result is that most men at university feel a pressure to be able to handle a large quantity of alcohol, while most women found alcohol “necessary” for many social situations. So when an independent poll found that students drink up to three times as much as other adults in “abnormal situations” (usually alone or before 5pm), the external pressures seem to clarify why.

Yet, what was more interesting to me than all this was my Grandmother’s reason to worry about me drinking. Unlike my mother, she didn’t mind that most people pass out after a night on the town, rather her concerns stemmed from the fact that my grandfather was an alcoholic. She worried that the drinking would become a problem not because of its normality or quantity, but because there was a history of it. This is when I first became interested.

The American Addiction Centre, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and NHS all conclude that environmental factors as mentioned above account for only half of the causes for alcoholism. The remaining factor, a whopping 50% of the causes for alcoholism, is genetic and more often than not hereditary (the difference here is important to note: genetic means your genes (inherited or not) are what cause you to have a certain condition, while hereditary means those genes come from your family).

It’s been proven that a smaller amygdala, abnormal serotonin levels and other biological factors highly linked to alcoholism and alcohol tolerance are often hereditary. This means that children, grandchildren or even nephews and nieces of alcoholics or individuals having suffered from a clinical substance abuse have up to a fourfold increased chance of struggling with alcohol abuse, especially among men (twice as many men drank heavily than women in a 2015 report).

When taking this into consideration, the statistics on genetic factors among students make for interesting reading. Around 40% of 400+ students surveyed knew of alcohol or substance abuse in their family, of which only a slim 15% knew such history could impact their risks of alcoholism. Note that this 40% figure was only of those who already knew of such a family history — there are more than likely many more also impacted by this unknowingly, as substance abuse is a taboo subject in families. By the same token, the relevance of the taboo is itself watered down by the notion that alcoholism or substance abuse is exclusive to older people. A third of those surveyed believed alcoholism almost exclusively impacts older people (above 40+).

Thus, I began to form a question — Does all this drinking put already at-risk students on a more likely path to alcoholism, by combining strong environmental and biological factors? Nobody has tried to answer this question at all before me, so it was worth giving a go.

To find an answer, I first had a chat with Dr Eric Britton of the King’s NHS Health Centre, a specialist in addiction and substance abuse. I first wanted to get out of the way whether students can be classified as alcoholics or not. “Not really” he tells me, as “while the conditions or frequency may match what you would see from an alcoholic, the psychological aspect isn’t fully present […] alcoholism is a more long-term issue”.

However, maybe that’s what makes university something of a springboard. Dr. Britton coined our three years of university as “short-term alcoholism”, an appellation for this whole matter. Many of the factors used when describing an alcoholic — drinking frequency and normality, separation from the rest of adult society and troublesome mental health – are extremely present in student life. The only catch here being the distinct timeframe our studies provide for such factors.

This finally led me on to my main query- does university put students, most of all those with pre-existing biological and hereditary factors, on a path to alcoholism? “Yes and no”. First of all, not only are our organs strong enough to avoid “major physiological effects (from drinking)” during our university years, but the parts of our brain that dictate consumption and addiction (such as our amygdala) aren’t fully developed yet, meaning our brains are less likely to be pushed towards alcoholism this early on.

However, the transition from student to “real adult” is often not an abrupt enough change to deter us from continuing to drink. While it is true students get a get-out-of-jail-free pass on drunk and disorderly behaviour, many environmental factors linger into adulthood. The “happy-hour cycle”, from “working lunches” to happy hours to a drink with dinner, lures us into irresponsible drinking long into our working lives, on top of a national culture somewhat defined by having a pint at any given opportunity.

This continuity is indeed most dangerous for those with relevant genetic factors, as they will be more likely to continue to drink after their brains have matured. More urgently, those with pre-existing genetic factors already put themselves at a higher risk of over-the-top drinking while at university. The student survey previously mentioned showed that those with a known hereditary history of substance abuse were more likely to drink heavily and to drink in “abnormal situations” than others, in turn meaning they are more in danger of blackouts and that “drink too many” on a night out.

To best understand where the limits of environmental factors lie, it is worth asking what’s being done about the general culture of student drinking. To make it short and sweet: the fear mongering around alcohol is dangerous. We get so routinely nannied about drinking by people outside university that it is now easier just to dismiss it. The outside world seem to view students as uncontrollable drunks, in turn making students feel isolated and not wanting to take the matter seriously.

The establishments providing the alcohol play a very mixed role in this whole debacle. You naturally can’t fault bars and clubs for doing their best to attract students, being some of their biggest clientele, but the prices for alcohol and encouraged continual consumption go beyond what’s necessary. While student bars like the Vault, Guy’s Bar, Philosophy Bar and especially Dover Castle limit how much alcohol is sold and prevent already drunk students from entering, most other private clubs and bars play off the sheer quantity of students by providing incessant opportunities to go out and drink (though at a slightly less affordable price), while supermarkets and off-licenses often mark important dates in the student calendar with exorbitant discounts on alcohol.

Even from within the university bubble, not much seriousness is observed. The (supposedly) student-run NUS coordinated an “alcohol impact” initiative which has left little trace bar some stands at freshers fairs and a barren website, KCLSU show frankly little to no interest in the matter and the university’s Student Services website has no more than a small page under “common concerns” encouraging students to “take care of themselves” and “avoid taking any risks which they might regret later”.

The Barren NUS “Alcohol Impact” website

Student Services’ short page on drugs and alcohol.

Perhaps ironically, it is in the university’s only alcohol-related societies, the Fine Wine Society and the Luxury Lager Society, that the matter is taken seriously. Incoming FWS society president George S. Mills said the society’s “core values” are “of appreciating the craft and art of winemaking” underlining that it “is not and never will be a drinking club” while LLS treasurer Peter Jacob pointed out that the newly-formed society had already adopted and would enforce Drinkaware’s “low risk drinking” guidelines to ensure nothing gets out of hand.

Fundamentally, what can we learn from all this? While it is true that students are given too much of an opportunity to drink, it doesn’t leave us scarred for life like smoking or drugs do and it is too ingrained in society to be able to change. Rather, it is what comes from outside University that needs challenging. The notion that all students are irresponsible and unsalvageable drunks is almost an antithesis to the image we have of “responsible consumption” after our university years, implying that we all naturally pull ourselves together when adulthood calls.

Perhaps university doesn’t quite put us on a path to alcoholism, but it gives us habits that can easily be picked up after we graduate, putting us at further risk then. So, until the demonisation of student drinking stops and instead excessive drinking is seen as a potential problem, both inside and outside of university life, all I can recommend is having that tough conversation about family history with your relatives, and then enjoying that pint you’ve been thinking about. After all, you’ve earned it.

Special thanks go to Dr. Eric Britton of the NHS health centre, Revd. Tim Ditchfield, Will Nestor-Sherman of Roar News, George S. Mills of the Fine Wine Society and Peter Jacob of the Luxury Lager Society, all of which without whom this article would have been impossible.

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