College student binge drinking and the "prevention paradox": implications for prevention and harm reduction

J Drug Educ. 2004;34(3):247-65. doi: 10.2190/W6L6-G171-M4FT-TWAP.


Considerable attention has been paid to heavy episodic or "binge" drinking among college youth in the United States. Despite widespread use, the binge measure is perceived by some as a low intervention threshold. We use data from the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study (n = 49,163) to describe patterns of consumption and harms along a continuum including the binge measure to demonstrate the validity of the binge threshold and prevention paradox in college. While the heaviest drinkers are at greatest risk for harm, they are relatively few and generate proportionately small amounts of all drinking-harms. The risk of harms is not zero among lower level drinkers in college. Because they are numerous, they account for the majority of harms. This paradoxical pattern suggests we moderate consumption among the majority using environmental approaches, the efficacy of which are described using case study data from a national prevention demonstration. Implications for prevention policy, programming, and media advocacy are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Alcohol Drinking
  • Alcoholic Intoxication / epidemiology*
  • Alcoholic Intoxication / etiology
  • Alcoholic Intoxication / prevention & control*
  • Ethanol / poisoning
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Risk-Taking*
  • Sexual Behavior / statistics & numerical data
  • Students
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Universities


  • Ethanol