Binge drinking in college students is not exactly breaking news. My patients repeatedly explain “if you can’t handle five shots of vodka, you are pretty lame”. They toss back multiple shots, have beers, then top off with mixed drinks. Hit the replay button once or twice, and the weekend is over. On Monday morning, they head back to class, seeming none-the-worse for wear beyond a headache. How is this possible? Especially for adolescents who are only STARTING to drink, how exactly can they tolerate this volume of alcohol? I started asking…and heard the same answer, over and over. “Well, to be honest, I pre-game with my ADD meds”.
PRE-GAME? Yes. Young people have figured out that when they take a prescription stimulant right before going out to party, they can “hold” more liquor. The stimulant takes away the typical buzzed, relaxed sedation of the first few drinks. Many have told me they “feel absolutely nothing at all from the alcohol…till I reach a certain number of shots, then suddenly I go from sober to super buzzed, and then either puke or pass out.”
At first this confused me…wasn’t the POINT of their drinking to catch that buzz in order to feel more social or confident? It seems counterintuitive. But if the peer pressure now is not only to drink, but to show you are so comfortable with drinking that it doesn’t affect you- then this plan makes total sense. Except that this plan is so very dangerous, which makes it terrifying instead.
Unfortunately, not “feeling” the effects of alcohol does not mean that the alcohol is less potent within your brain, liver, bloodstream or nerves. This practice makes it far too easy to reach ALCOHOL POISONING levels, because you have turned off all your body’s warning signs. Short term, you can hit toxic levels of alcohol that make you stop breathing. Or enough to “just” pass out…but then throw up and choke on your vomit. Long term, you are taking the HOV lane to end-stage alcohol complications because although you may only drink on weekends, you are getting huge quantities in at one time. And socially, this practice is normalizing binge drinking, because everyone sees their friends routinely drinking numerous drinks without it seeming to affect them.
A recent Cochrane meta-analysis “Social norms information for alcohol misuse in university and college students” examined 70 studies, including nearly 45,000 students. The premise was that college students have an inflated misperception of how much their peers are drinking, and therefore educating them about the true social norms may reduce alcohol-related consumption and subsequent problems. Although there were some significant effects, the “substantive meaningful benefits” were not enough to recommend policy changes.
As a side note, many students are taking ADD meds they have borrowed or purchased from a friend, which is not only illegal but magnifies their medical risk.
Yes, binge drinking in college has been around for a very long time, and thankfully the majority give up this habit when they hit the real world- if they survive their risky behavior. Note that a standard screening question for alcohol abuse is “have you had more than 4 drinks in one day during the last year?”
Wondering how many drinks it would take for YOU to get alcohol poisoning? Check out one of my favorite resources: Aware, Awake, Alive
BOTTOM LINE: Doctors, parents and teens ALL need to know the dangers of “pre-gaming” with ADD meds.