Feelings mixed about student drinking

Alcohol and university may be inseparable to many, but some students are opting out in the name of health, morality and productivity

The consequences of binge-drinking aren’t all immediate.
The consequences of binge-drinking aren’t all immediate.
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According to a Sept. 2008 Health Counselling and Disability Services survey, 85 per cent of Queen’s students consume alcohol.
According to a Sept. 2008 Health Counselling and Disability Services survey, 85 per cent of Queen’s students consume alcohol.
Photo: 

Like many university students, Justin Lum, ArtSci ’10, found his first year at Queen’s revolved heavily around the consumption of alcohol.

“Prior to coming to university, I never drank heavily. When I got here I sort of went on a binge,” he said, adding that he sometimes went out five nights in a week his first year.

Lum said a combination of factors led to the decrease in his partying. He said he now consumes about 10 drinks per week.

“Realistically speaking, there’s just not enough time to socialize in the evenings. [Fourth year] is a different mentality all together. In first year I didn’t take school as seriously as I do now. I can’t deal with the repercussions of drinking too heavily,” he said. “I’ve grown up, too. It’s not responsible for me to party four nights a week. I have other things to do now.”

The desire to socialize and meet new people contributed to his drinking in first year, Lum said.

“In general I think drinking played a pretty important role in socializing in first year. It wasn’t the be-all, end-all, but it was helpful in meeting new friends and integrating yourself into the Queen’s lifestyle.”

While it helped Lum feel more at ease, he said he doesn’t see abstaining from alcohol as a social hindrance.

“I don’t think that by not drinking students are compromising any potential to meet new friends, but initially it might be more difficult for them to integrate into that community. Especially at Queen’s, I think [drinking’s] pretty prevalent, but people aren’t going to be unfriendly just because someone doesn’t like to party.”

Lum said drinking’s effects are much more apparent to him now.

“I never worried about it in first year. You think you’re invincible. Into second year I started to feel the physical repercussions of [drinking],” he said. “My body was not used to that. It definitely is harmful. You can’t drink as much as I did and not expect some physical repercussions. Knowing that, I’ve tried to tone it down and get into a healthier lifestyle. I want to take care of my body. I definitely feel it now, and was it worth it?

Not necessarily.”

Eighty-five per cent of Queen’s students drink according to a Sept. 2008 online survey conducted by Health, Counseling and Disability Services.

“Low risk drinking is generally not harmful for the student,” HCDS director Mike Condra said. “Our concern is with binge drinking—it’s the most harmful form of drinking. Changes in brain functioning are happening until at least 25. Binge drinking because it means in taking a large quantity of alcohol, it’s like a mini withdrawal, which is very damaging to the brain.”

Condra said 48 per cent of those surveyed admitted to drinking five or more drinks at least once in the previous two weeks.

“One episode of binge-drinking could produce long-term consequences,” he said. “Some of the consequences we’re talking about aren’t immediate, they’re more on the long term, so it’s harder for them to recognize.”

Condra said some potential long-term consequences of binge drinking include skin problems, stomach ulcers, vitamin deficiencies, decreased sperm production, erectile difficulties and liver, heart and circulatory problems.

“Often we overlook the short-term consequences of binge drinking,” he said. “Very often we don’t draw the connects between binge drinking and its consequences.”

Condra said it can take as few as two drinks to affect someone’s decision-making skills. The HCDS survey found 36 per cent of student drinkers had done or said something they would later regret as a result of alcohol consumption, with 31 per cent saying they had experienced memory loss, 10 per cent experiencing injury and nine per cent having a sexual encounter they later regretted.

“Often when people binge drink, their judgment is seriously affected,” Condra said.

Condra said alcohol serves no major risk to students if it’s consumed in moderation. In fact, there are low-risk drinking guidelines developed by the World Health Organization.

These guidelines include not drinking everyday of the week, having no more than two drinks per session and having no more than nine drinks per week for women and 14 for men.

“Those people who follow those guidelines are less likely to encounter problems. Drinking is all about drinking responsibly. For example, having two drinks and then going into a car and driving is not responsible. So, it’s all about being responsible within the context that you are drinking.”

Condra said alcohol’s social dimension leads the majority of university students to drink, despite an awareness of the risks involved.

“Our culture as a whole strongly encourages people to consume alcohol. Alcohol is widely advertised, it’s readily available to any over the age of 19. In the university culture, alcohol is directly associated with social gatherings.”

Condra said there are potential academic benefits for students who chose not to drink.

“They certainly have an advantage compared to students who don’t binge drink, more ability to concentrate, more downtime,” he said. “They’re simply more available to other things in life, in terms of academics and in terms of pursuit of other means of enjoyment.”

Ryan Robinson, ArtSci ’10, counts himself among the 15 per cent minority who have chosen not to have alcohol factor into his time at Queen’s, having developed his non-drinking position prior to attending university.

“Strictly for a while, but that was more out of respect for my parents when I was still underage,” he said. “I didn’t avoid alcohol entirely, but I also didn’t see any real benefit to it so didn’t go out of my way for it either.”

Robinson said he’ll have the occasional drink, but has chosen to limit his consumption due to the health benefits associated with not drinking.

“I have nothing against a moderate amount, but if given a choice, I’d still rather drink something else.”

Robinson said he doesn’t feel choosing not to drink has affected his social life.

“I know lots of people who drink little or none, and although it sounds cliché I believe we have just as much fun as anybody else,” he said. “I’m still very socially-oriented, people-oriented, so often it is as simple as watching a movie at home or just talking and getting to know each other, but it’s not always consistent in terms of what I do, as long as its still drawing joy from spending time with those other people.”

Lida Marasco, ArtSci ’10, said as a member of the Baha’i faith, she chooses to remain sober for religious reasons.

“We see alcohol as a cause of a lot of social problems. It’s not a positive influence on society,” she said. “I’ve been asked not to drink alcohol whether it be within the family or society at large. It creates problems.”

Marasco said alcohol’s psychological effects concern her.

“Personally, as an individual I see it as a mind-altering substance and don’t need it to have fun, I don’t need it to have fun or relax. I can do all those things and have a good time with people without doing something that may affect me that way.”

Marasco said she doesn’t mind hanging out with people who drink, but she prefers to hang out with other non-drinkers—a category she estimates half of her friends fall under.

“I do have friends who drink and when we go out they’ll have a beer or something like that, but they’re not big drinkers. The other half don’t drink for various reasons,” she said. “I just feel better to be around people who have a similar lifestyle as me, I feel more comfortable.”

Marasco said she admits it can be isolating to be a university student who refrains from drinking.

“It’s hard because our culture revolves around alcohol,” she said. “Sometimes it can be hard to do something differently and I’ve never had any issues with it. Most of my friends are understanding and considerate about my decision, so I’m lucky.”

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