Study: College Students Don't Realize How Much They're Drinking

New survey shows they overpour drinks, underreport levels of consumption.

If you've ever woken up at 3 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon face down in, well, last night's "festivities," you may have had more to drink than you thought.

"But I only had one drink!" you cry as your head reverberates with the pounding of a thousand beating drums. Sure, one drink the size of a Mack truck. But fear not, young lush, you are not alone.

A new study published by the Research Society on Alcoholism confirms what RAs have known for years: college students overpour their drinks and underreport their levels of consumption. Moreover, the report also notes, many students do not accurately gauge what constitutes a "standard drink."

"We ask [students] to tell us how much they drink and we assume that their answers are totally accurate," Aaron White, assistant psychiatry professor at Duke University Medical Center and first author of the study, said in a statement. "In order for students to be accurate, they have to know how much alcohol constitutes a single serving, and it turns out that they don't."

A "standard drink" is usually defined as a beverage that contains 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol — that's equal to 12 ounces of 5 percent beer, 5 ounces of 12 percent wine and 1.5 ounces of 40 percent (or 80 proof) distilled spirits.

"The problem is a typical drinker doesn't think this way," White said. "To many people, a drink is one serving regardless of how big it is. Someone who has had four gin and tonics would probably give the same answer on an alcohol survey as someone who's had four Long Island iced teas, when in fact the latter could contain three times as much alcohol as the former."

The consequences of drinking can reach far beyond a hangover in the morning. Up to 25 percent of students said drinking has affected their grades, according to a 2002 report by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Nearly half a million students said they have unprotected sex while intoxicated or have been too intoxicated to know if they consented to having sex. Meanwhile, the number of college students who have driven while intoxicated climbed to 2.8 million, Reuters reported this week, and the number of alcohol-related deaths, including car accidents, has risen by 6 percent.

More than 90 percent of college students drink, according to the NIAAA, and nearly 25 percent of students admitted to binge drinking at least three times in a two-week period, according to a 1999 study. Binge drinking is typically defined as five drinks for men and four drinks for women in one session.

"If we tell students that binge drinking is dangerous and we want them to stay under this limit, then we absolutely must do a better job of teaching them what a drink is," White said. "Not doing so would be like telling people it's OK to have one order of french fries a day without telling them we mean small or super-sized."

One solution, White suggested, is to provide serving-size information on alcohol containers, similar to any other beverage in a store. "Why they are not required to place that information on [there] is way beyond my understanding," he said. "If you buy juice in a store, all you have to do is look at the label to see how many ounces are in a serving and how many servings are in the entire container. If that information is on [a container] of grape juice, then why [shouldn't it be] on wine?"