The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The often-repeated claim that 1,800 college students die from ‘alcohol-related causes’

A bartender serves two mugs of beer at a tavern in Montpelier, Vt.  (Toby Talbot/AP)

“More than 1,800 students die every year of alcohol-related causes.”

article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that appeared in the New York Times under the headline “Why Colleges Haven’t Stopped Binge Drinking,” Dec. 15, 2014

“Legislators did not hear about the 1,800 college students who died from alcohol poisoning in the United States over the last year.”

article in the Daily Targum, the Rutgers University newspaper, quoting a lawmaker, Nov. 10, 2014

“Backers said the prohibition on grain alcohol sales is a priority for college administrators eager to curb the sort of heavy drinking that causes more than 1,800 alcohol-related deaths of college students each year in the United States.”

— article in The Washington Post, “Senate passes ban on grain alcohol,” Feb. 6, 2014

The Fact Checker recently explored the suspect math behind the often-cited statistic that one in five college women are sexually assaulted. A reader wrote asking for an inquiry into another statistic that often alarms the parents of college students – that 1,800 college students die every year from “alcohol-related causes.”

As shown from the quotes above, this statistic frequently is used in conjunction with binge drinking, either in the statements of politicians or in news articles, often quoting politicians.

The statistic is so closely associated to binge drinking that it’s little wonder that when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in January that middle-aged men die more often from alcohol poisoning, The Post started its report this way: “An average of six people die every day of alcohol poisoning, and most are not binge-drinking college students.”

So how is the statistic developed? We read the reports so you don’t have to.

The Facts

The 1,800 number stems from the third report on college student drinking by a group of researchers led by Ralph Hingson, who is director of the epidemiology and prevention research division of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The first report, published in 2002, estimated that there were 1,442 “alcohol-related injury deaths” among college students in 1998. The number grew to 1,647 deaths in 2001 and 1,825 in 2005. The fourth report is due to be published soon, Hingson said.

But there are no deaths directly linked to binge drinking in the calculation of these statistics, though the initial report framed the data around the growing concern about heavy college drinking.

Instead, about three-quarters of the deaths are related to motor-vehicle crashes; the rest are from non-traffic deaths, such as fires, falls, drownings and so forth. That’s why the statistic refers to “alcohol-related injury deaths.” These are people who died in an accident where alcohol may have played a role.

But researchers faced a problem. There are no data in accident records about whether someone is a college student. So researchers took an estimate for the percentage of young adults, between the ages of 18 and 24, who are believed to be college students, and then applied that fraction to the accident statistics. (There are data indicating that college students drink more heavily than noncollege students; the study assumes college students have accidents at the same rate as noncollege students.)

Thus, even though the number appears so precise (1,442, 1,647 and now 1,825 deaths), it’s really just an estimate; there’s no way of knowing if that many college students died while under the influence of alcohol.

Indeed, when you dig into the data, one big reason the number has been growing is because the percentage of young adults going to college has increased over time, from 30 percent in 1998 to 33 percent in 2005.

(Incidentally, the CDC report on binge drinking said that 113 people between the ages of 15 and 24 die annually from alcohol poisoning. If we also assume that one-third are college students, that’s about 35 a year. A recent survey of deaths at 157 four-year colleges, conducted by researchers at the University of Virginia, found 1.49 deaths per 100,000 students from alcohol-related nontraffic injuries; by contrast, the suicide rate was 6.17.)

But there is another problem with the data. The research appears to assume that alcohol-related motor-vehicle crashes were caused by the presence of alcohol. But since at least 2003, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has emphatically warned that the data do not mean that alcohol consumption caused the crashes:

“A motor vehicle crash is considered to be alcohol-related if at least one driver or nonoccupant (such as a pedestrian or pedalcyclist) involved in the crash is determined to have had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .01 gram per deciliter (g/dL) or higher. Thus, any fatality that occurs in an alcohol-related crash is considered an alcohol-related fatality. The term ‘alcohol-related’ does not indicate that a crash or fatality was caused by the presence of alcohol.”

In other words, an accident is considered alcohol-related if there is any measurable alcohol in any participant in the crash — but there is no evidence that the consumption of alcohol led to the accident and subsequent death. Yet about three-quarters of the reported “alcohol-related injury deaths” stem from the motor-vehicle records.

(For reference, it is not illegal in most states to drive over the age of 21 with less than a .08 percent blood-alcohol concentration level. About 15 percent of alcohol-related crashes in 2005  involving people in the 16-24 age group indicated the presence of alcohol within a legal range, according to NHTSA data.)

Hingson, in an interview, said “you are raising an appropriate question on the data that I had when I first wrote the paper.” He said research on the issue has been hamstrung by a lack of solid information, though efforts are underway to improve it. He also noted that he took a conservative approach by assuming college students had accidents at the same rate as noncollege students, even though surveys indicate that they are heavier drinkers.

Hingson appeared unaware of the NHTSA warning about the accident data and said he would make a note of that in the latest edition of the report. “I agree that you can’t say that alcohol is the sole cause of these accidents,” he said.

The Pinocchio Test

Hingson and his fellow researchers, of course, have little control over how the media and politicians portray the research, especially in articles concerning binge drinking. The fact sheet issued by NIAAA on college drinking makes clear that the statistic is an estimate of deaths “from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes.” The fact sheet includes a citation to the research.

Somehow, this factoid has become shortened to deaths from “alcohol-related causes” or even worse, deaths from “alcohol poisoning.” But it is neither of those things. Moreover, it is not an especially precise estimate. The death statistics include incidents in which alcohol may not played any role — or in which the level of alcohol was within legal limits. Then the final figure depended on an estimate of the percentage of college students within this age group — not any actual college-student deaths.

Alcohol abuse is obviously a serious issue on college campuses. But it’s important to understand what the numbers show — and don’t show. In terms of alcohol poisoning from binge drinking, the actual number of deaths appears to be in the dozens. This “1,800” estimate has distinct limitations and needs to be treated more cautiously in the future by reporters and politicians. Suggesting that the deaths are somehow related to binge drinking is worthy of at least Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

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