An estimated 1,400 college students are killed every year in alcohol-related accidents, according to a study released Tuesday that researchers call the most comprehensive look ever at the consequences of student drinking.
"Half the World Trade Center casualties are happening every year in our colleges," said one researcher, Mark Goldman, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida.
The researchers say the figures show that college drinking needs to seen as a major health concern.
"Historically, I think there has been the view that whatever college students are doing, it's not that serious a problem, it's a rite of passage," said another researcher, Kenneth J. Sher, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
"For many it is just a rite of passage, but I think these findings point out that many people never get through this rite of passage safely," Sher told CBS radio station WBZ-AM.
The study by the federally supported Task Force on College Drinking estimated that drinking by college students contributes to 500,000 injuries and 70,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape. Also, 400,000 students between 18 and 24 years old reported having had unprotected sex as a result of drinking.
The study does not say whether the problems are increasing or decreasing. A Harvard School of Public Health survey released last month reported that more students are abstaining from alcohol, but levels of binge drinking — having at least four or five drinks at a sitting — are the same as in the early 1990s.
The new report was one of 24 studies commissioned by the task force of college presidents, scientists and students convened by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The institute is part of the National Institutes of Health.
Most of the papers will be published in the forthcoming March issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol.
Researchers integrated various databases and survey results to reach their findings.
Motor vehicle fatalities were the most common form of alcohol-related deaths. The statistics included college students killed in car accidents if the students had alcohol in their blood, even if the level was below the legal limit.
Students who died in other alcohol-related accidents, such as falls and drownings, were included. Those who died as a result of homicides or suicides were not.
Chief researcher Ralph Hingson of the Boston University School of Public Health said he believes the estimates are more likely to be too conservative than overstated.
"I think actually getting the numbers out will help the public understand that this is a very large problem, perhaps a larger problem than people might have otherwise thought," he said.
Hingson and his colleagues say studies have shown what works - and what doesn't — in deterring alcohol use.
Goldman said general messages warning of the dangers of alcohol do not appear to be effective with college students, at least by themselves. What's more effective is teaching students how to resist peer pressure.
"Many of the students don't want to do it, but they don't know how to say no," he said.
Communities and colleges need to work together as well to prevent underage drinking and limit the number of stores that sell alcohol, he said.
"The university can't do them by themselves because even if they did effective things, it might just squeeze it off into the community," Goldman said.