Campus Craze: Binge Drinking

On Saturdays, the cheers at Michigan State University begin long before the football game does.

On the last Saturday of Michigan State's 1998 season, 21-year-old Tony Bailey was celebrating the last game of the season. "Our first beer was at 8:30 a.m.," he said.

Correspondent Erin Moriarty reports on binge drinking, a common campus phenomenon that can have dangerous results.

Bailey, a senior majoring in nursing, and his roommate, Dion Kelly, don't really need a reason to drink. Hours after the big game of 1998, they were still at it. The occasion? It was Saturday night.

That night, looking back on the day, the two roommates tallied up their total: "From 8:30 this morning until 10 after 1, I probably had 16 or 17 beers," Bailey said.

"I really had eight beers tailgating, two shots, took a nap, probably 20 to 21 beers," Kelly said. In other words, he drank nearly 2 gallons of beer.

More than one third of all college students regularly consume large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. This is known as binge drinking, and most do it simply to get drunk. "I don't even like the taste of beer," Kelly says.

Binge drinking is the top health threat for college students, according to Dr. Dean Sienko, the Lansing, Mich., medical examiner. It is also on the increase, he says. "We can not allow people to think that this is a rite of passage, that everybody does this," he says.

Dr. Sienko became a crusader in November 1998, when Michigan State student Bradley McCue died. At midnight on Nov. 5, 1998, McCue turned 21. To celebrate, he and some friends went to Rick's American Café, a popular campus bar and hangout.

At Michigan State, there's a unofficial tradition of celebrating the 21st birthday by drinking 21 shots. McCue went even further; he drank 24, which means he ingested 24 ounces of hard liquor, in just about an hour and a half.

At 1:45 a.m., McCue walked out of the bar and went home, where his friends put him to bed. Two hours later he was dead.

Brad McCue's parents have created an organization to educate young people about drinking. Check out its Web site.
"There's a direct effect, a direct poisoning of alcohol on your brain," says Dr. Sienko, who performed the autopsy. "He simply stopped breathing." McCue's blood-alcohol level was four times the legal limit.

Bailey says that since then, students have been more cautious, especially when people have birthdays. But while McCue's death stunned students on campus, it certainly didn't stop them.

Two weeks after that death, 48 Hours visited the same bar and found binge drinking in full swing.

And Bailey and Kelly's marathon-drinking session too place just weeks after McCue's death. Many students feel pressure to drink, Bailey says.

Kelly had always been against drinking, Kelly says. What changed his mind, he says, was "friends, the atmosphere and wanting to experiment."

Students continued to drink that year, convinced they knew their limits.

Alcohol can be dangerous in other ways as well. In the fall of 1998, University of Michigan's Courtney Canter went to a frat party, where alcohol was being served. Canter, 18 at the time and under the legal drinking age, reportedly drank.

Courtney Canter died in what may have been an alcohol-related accident.
Sometime after she got back to her room at 3 a.m., she slipped and fell out of a sixth-floor dorm window. She was found dead hours later. While her blood-alcohol level was well below the legal limit, some people, including her father, think that alcohol played a role in her death.

"I am sure that alcohol she took may have played a role," says her father, George Canter. "How large a role we don't have any way of knowing. "

Courtney was one of nearly 50 alcohol-related deaths in 1998 on and around college campuses.

"It is the most serious health problem we have," Sienko says. "What is the university experience doing to that person when they walk into a university at 17 or 18 and leave in their early 20s?" Do they leave the university thinking that binge drinking "is acceptable and innocuous behavior?"

Binge!: Main Page

Web story by David Kohn;