The prevalence of alcohol abuse on college campuses is, unfortunately, hardly breaking news. Accounts of binge drinking among college students and various other forms of alcohol abuse make regular appearances in on- and off-line media — and these behaviors are commonly portrayed as typical college behavior in films and on TV.

But if you think you already know all there is to know about alcohol abuse on college campuses, think again. Researchers with the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently documented not only the stunning degree to which excessive drinking has permeated college life, but also the staggering financial impact of this behavior.

After studying 954 heavy-drinking college students, UW-M researchers Marlon Mundt and Larissa Zakletskaia reported that larger universities (40,000 students or more) will spend between $469,000 and $546,000 every year on student emergency room visits for reasons related to alcohol abuse.

To repeat: Alcohol abuse on college campuses costs major universities about half a million dollars every year on emergency room visits alone.

A March 16 post on MedPage Today provided the following information about the subjects of the study, which was published both online and in the April print edition of the journal Health Affairs:

[The researchers] examined data from the College Health Intervention Projects study, which was a randomized controlled trial of a brief physician alcohol intervention for students seen on campus for routine primary care visits at five college campuses.

Among the students screened, 986 were found to be high-risk drinkers due to having more than 12 drinks over the prior week for women or 15 for men, more than 40 drinks over the past month for women or 50 for men, or more than five drinks at once on at least eight occasions in the prior month.

Half of the women and 52% of the men reported at baseline that they had an episode of drinking within the prior year from which they couldn’t recall events though they had not lost consciousness.

Seven percent reported six or more blackout episodes.

During two years of follow-up, 30% of the men and 27% of the women visited the emergency department at least once.

Among their recommendations, Mundt and Zakletskaia advised colleges to put particular emphasis on intervening with students who have a  history of alcohol-related blackouts.

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Photo at top of post by Flickr user Jason Meredith, licensed for use with attribution via Creative Commons.