Reducing Risky Behaviors As Associated with 21st Birthdays


Academic and Student Affairs Partnership for Substance Abuse Prevention: Reducing Risky Behaviors Associated with 21st Birthdays

This research project builds on the experience of Student Health’s Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention in developing and evaluating celebratory drinking interventions. The project goal is to increase protective behaviors, and reduce alcohol consumption, estimated blood alcohol concentrations (eBAC), and negative consequences associated with 21st birthday celebrations.

On college campuses across the country, high-risk drinking, and the negative consequences associated with it, is a national concern.  Between 10% and 30% of college students experience direct or second-hand negative effects of alcohol use each year (Perkins 2002b).  In 2004, the NIAAA approved the following definition of binge drinking: “a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 gram percent or above. For the typical adult, this pattern corresponds to consuming 5 or more drinks (male), or 4 or more drinks (female), in about 2 hours.” BACs can be estimated using a formula that uses data on weight, number of drinks, time spent drinking and gender (Widmark, 1932, 1981). Binge drinking on college campuses is associated with adverse academic outcomes including lower grade point averages, suspensions, poor performance on tests and papers, falling behind in schoolwork, and missing classes (Musgrave-Marquart et al., 1997; Presley et al., 1996; Vickers et al., 2004; Wechsler et al., 2002). 

High-risk drinking associated with 21st birthday celebrations
At 21st birthday celebrations, as many as 90% of celebrants report consuming alcohol, 61% attain BAC levels above the legal limit of .08, and 23% reach dangerously high BAC levels (above 0.25) (Neighbors et al., 2009).  The practice of consuming 21 drinks for a 21st birthday has been termed extreme drinking and continues to be a serious problem as students die as a result of consuming 21 or more standard drinks on students’ 21st birthdays (Hembroff et al., 2007). While not all students are drinking to extreme during 21st birthday celebrations, data consistently show an increased level of alcohol consumption during 21st birthday celebrations (Lewis et al., 2009; Wechsler et al., 1999).

At U.Va., Gordie Center data indicate that students misperceive how much alcohol their peers consume during 21st birthday celebrations.  U.Va. data from the 2008-09 academic year indicate that on average, students consume 7.8 drinks during their own 21st birthday celebration, which is an increase of three drinks over their typical Saturday night drinking.  On average, these 21 year olds believe that most other students consumed 8.6 drinks during their birthday celebrations (Incerto et al., 2011).  

The social norms approach involves correcting misperceptions about the prevalence of high-risk alcohol behaviors (Perkins 1997; Perkins & Berkowitz 1986).  Numerous studies document that most students overestimate actual prevalence of substance use, which is associated with higher rates of hazardous personal alcohol use (Berkowitz 1997; Guha et al., 2007; Kypri & Langley 2003; Perkins 1995, 1997, 2002; Perkins & Wechsler 1996; Prentice & Miller 1993; Sher et al., 2001; White et al., 2008).

Principle Investigator:  Ellen J. Bass, Ph.D. - Associate Professor, Department of Systems and Information Engineering

Co-principle Investigator: Susan E. Bruce, M.Ed. - Director, Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention

Co-principle Investigator: Erik W. Gunderson, M.D. - Assistant Professor, Departments of Psychiatry & Neurobehavioral Sciences and Medicine