10th June 2011, Volume 124 Number 1335

Brett McEwan, David Swain, Maxine Campbell

Excessive alcohol use is common amongst New Zealand drinkers1 and this is particularly so amongst New Zealand tertiary (university and polytechnic) student drinkers.2,3Students living in student residential accommodation (dorms, colleges, and halls of residence) often consume larger amounts of alcohol than their non-resident student peers.4,5 Student drinking is associated with high levels of alcohol-related harms.3,6

The current study was undertaken as a component of a doctoral research project that investigated the drinking behaviour and attitudes of campus-resident student drinkers, with a view to developing harm minimisation strategies. This paper details findings that reveal the dynamics of excessive drinking behaviour and uses the term ‘controlled intoxication’ to identify the process by which some heavy-drinking students monitor and manage their predetermined level of intoxication.

Method

Sample

The research population was drawn from three student residential facilities, situated on-campus, at a medium-sized New Zealand university, in 2006. Sixty-two percent of students were female and 38% male. The majority of students were aged 18–19 years (59%), followed by 20 years (15%) and 21 years (9%). Fifty-three percent of students identified as New Zealand European, 16% Asian, 12% New Zealand Māori, and 5% Pacific people (e.g. of Samoan origin).

Data collection

A combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods7 was used during three phases of data collection. The use of focus group interviews and indepth interviews during the first phase of the data collection process allowed the researchers to explore the topic with students, and to gather data to assist in the development of the questionnaire schedule. The use of a quantitative questionnaire survey during the second phase of the data collection process enabled the researchers to collect and analyse data on a large proportion of the campus-resident student population and identify patterns of behaviour and attitudes. The inclusion of focus group and indepth interviews during the third and final phase of the data collection process enabled the researchers to gain students’ understandings of the questionnaire survey results and allowed the opportunity to continue refining concepts arising from the data.
Phase 1—Phase 1 involved nine focus group interviews and 12 indepth interviews. Information sessions outlining the research project were held at each of the three residences, and interested students were provided with an invitation letter, information sheet, and a consent form (which provided the researcher with a range of demographic details). The principles of grounded theory8 were used to guide the collection and analysis of the qualitative data. Using the grounded theory principle of ‘theoretical sampling’, students were selected for the Phase 1 interviews to include a diversity of gender, ethnicity, age, and drinking levels. The focus group interviews (consisting of 5–7 students) and the indepth interviews involved semi-structured discussion exploring student drinking behaviour and attitudes.
Phase 2—The second phase of data collection assessed students’ drinking behaviour and attitudes utilising a written survey questionnaire, which was completed by 501 students, representing 61% of the research population (respondents provided a good representation of the research population). To ensure the questionnaires were completed privately, and to minimise peer influence, the anonymous questionnaire was administered within a private area of the residence dining room, under the supervision of the researcher.
Phase 3—Phase 3 of the data collection process consisted of six focus group interviews and six follow-up indepth interviews (selected from the original 12 indepth interviewees). The Phase 3 interviewees were provided with a summary of the Phase 2 questionnaire survey results and semi-structured discussion was initiated to elicit student understandings of the survey results. Again, the principles of grounded theory informed the selection of the Phase 3 interview participants and analysis of the qualitative data.

Measures

A ‘drinking’ student was defined as one who had consumed alcohol during the previous 12 month period. A ‘standard’ alcoholic drink was defined as the equivalent of 10 grams of ethanol.9 The experience of ‘intoxication’ was self-assessed by students; earlier focus group discussions revealed that students were confident in self-assessing experiences of alcohol intoxication.

Ethics

All data collection procedures, as a component of a PhD research project, were approved by the institution’s ethics committee.

Results

Intoxication

Fifty-one percent of male drinking students (44% of all male students) and 36% of female drinking students (30% of all female students) reported that they were intoxicated on a weekly basis.

Premeditated intoxication

Sixty percent of drinking students agreed with the statement ‘I usually know beforehand if I am going to get drunk’, 14% of students disagreed with the statement and 26% neither agreed nor disagreed (no significant gender differences were found in students’ replies to this statement). Further analysis revealed that those students who agreed with the statement, were also more likely to consume more drinks on a typical drinking occasion (Spearman’s rs = 0.202, p <0.001).

This finding was supported by interview data, with many heavy-drinking students reporting that they typically planned their big drinking occasions in consultation with peers, purchased a predetermined volume of alcohol from an off-licence retailer prior to commencing drinking (to consume in residence or at a friend’s flat [apartment]), and also pre-planned which on-licensed premise they would be attending later in the evening.

Attitudes towards intoxication

Sixty-three percent of students agreed with the statement ‘It is okay to get drunk as long as it is not every day’; 17% disagreed, and 20% neither agreed nor disagreed (no significant gender differences were found in students’ responses to this statement). Those students who agreed with the statement were also more likely to consume more drinks on a typical drinking occasion (Spearman’s rs = 0.253, p <0.001).

The majority of students associated alcohol use with desirable social experiences including having a good time with friends, relaxation, fun, meeting new people, increased social confidence, and for some, an increased likelihood of sexual activity.

Controlled intoxication

Discussion with students during the first phase of interviews revealed that the majority of students who regularly drank to intoxication were very clear in commenting that they did not consume alcohol in an uncontrolled manner. These students reported that they typically consumed alcohol to achieve a pre-determined level of intoxication.

Students stated that they achieved their preferred level of intoxication by monitoring a range of alcohol effects to signal the need to either slow down their drinking or to stop their drinking. For example, four students participating in a Phase 1 focus group, who had varying thresholds of controlled intoxication, discussed how they knew when they had had enough to drink:

Student 1—Whenever I get tipsy [a little drunk] or happy, as soon as I get to that stage. As soon as I am happy, more confident, and louder.
Student 2—I know if I am going to drink anymore I am going to make a total arse of myself, so I stop.
Student 3—I usually just keep going. I am usually still in control when I am smashed to a certain degree. I just keep topping it up. Once I hit smashed, then I will slow down a bit, come back down a bit and then keep topping up to that point.
Student 4—Mine is kind of weird. If I kind of shake my head from side to side and the room moves slower than my head, then I know I have had a bit. So then I probably slow down when my vision can’t keep up with my movement.

Drinking students monitored their level of intoxication for reasons of personal safety and control, to minimise the impact of alcohol-related harms, and to ensure that they could gain entry into on-licensed premises. During the Phase 1 interviews and piloting of the questionnaire schedule, students identified 14 drinking effects that were commonly used to monitor intoxication.

As significant gender differences were found in drinking-students’ responses to 12 of the 14 drinking effects, male students’ responses are shown in Table 1 and female students’ responses in Table 2.

The two drinking effects that did not show any significant gender difference were ‘when the night is boring and/or no fun’ and ‘when my friends tell me to stop drinking’.

Table 1. Male drinking-student responses to 14 drinking effects
Variables
I will usually stop my drinking
I will usually slow my drinking
It does not influence my drinking
Not applicable to my drinking
Drinking effect
%
%
%
%
When I start to feel like vomiting
64
26
5
4
When I vomit
61
17
10
12
When I feel extremely tired and want to sleep
57
20
17
5
When my head or the room starts spinning
53
26
11
10
When I know I am very drunk/wasted
48
26
17
8
When I start to lose the ability to walk properly
41
29
21
9
When the night is boring and/or no fun
41
25
28
6
When my friends tell me to stop drinking
39
31
11
19
When I start to lose the ability to talk properly
29
32
23
15
When I know I am drunk
28
40
27
5
When I start to feel aggressive or angry
22
16
25
36
When I start to get too emotional
16
17
23
43
When I reach my limit of counted drinks
15
20
25
39
When I start to feel a little drunk and tipsy
8
44
46
2
Table 2. Female drinking-student responses to 14 drinking effects
Drinking effect
I will usually stop my drinking
I will usually slow my drinking
It does not influence my drinking
Not applicable to my drinking

%
%
%
%
When I start to feel like vomiting
76
10
1
12
When I vomit
71
8
1
19
When I know I am very drunk/wasted
70
13
6
10
When I feel extremely tired and want to sleep
69
19
8
3
When my head or the room starts spinning
61
24
4
10
When I start to lose the ability to walk properly
61
17
7
14
When I start to lose the ability to talk properly
51
21
11
17
When the night is boring and/or no fun
48
20
27
5
When I know I am drunk
48
35
12
5
When I start to get too emotional
44
25
11
20
When my friends tell me to stop drinking
39
39
8
13
When I start to feel aggressive or angry
39
15
8
37
When I reach my limit of counted drinks
28
19
23
30
When I start to feel a little drunk and tipsy
12
59
28
1

Access into on-licence premises—It was a feature of student drinking behaviour that once students commenced drinking in residence (or at a friend’s flat) they would typically move on to an on-licensed premise to continue drinking. Although students pre-loaded with alcohol (as it was cheaper) prior to arriving at on-licensed premises, they typically limited their level of intoxication to ensure they could gain entry.

Alcohol-related harms—Many students reported that in the previous six-month period they had experienced alcohol-related harm as a consequence of their drinking. The most common harms included vomiting (58%), missing an academic class (58%), physically hurting themselves (57%), and passing out (32%). A feature of interview discussions with students was the high level of tolerance that some students held towards many alcohol-related harms. These students commented that ‘some’ alcohol-related harm was an expected and acceptable consequence of their drinking behaviour.

Discussion

In the current study, the majority of students who consumed alcohol with the intention of getting intoxicated, practised ‘controlled intoxication’ through monitoring a range of drinking effects as signals to either stop or slow down their drinking.

Research evaluating the drinking behaviour of English pub-patrons found similar drinking behaviour, describing it as ‘controlled loss of control’ and explaining that this behaviour allowed drinkers to experience the pleasures of intoxication, while at the same time minimising the associated risks to personal safety and health.10 Similarly, research assessing the intoxication levels (using a breathalyser machine to test blood-alcohol levels) of bar drinkers in a major European city reported that most intoxicated drinkers’ level of intoxication did not vary by the hour of the survey, suggesting that drinkers reached a certain level of intoxication which they then endeavoured to maintain throughout the course of the evening.11

The New Zealand Alcohol Advisory Council’s 2005 survey of New Zealanders’ drinking behaviour reported that of the 22% of New Zealand adults who were assessed as binge drinkers, just over one-half (12%) were categorised as ‘constrained-binge drinkers’.1Constrained-binge drinkers were defined as consuming binge drinking amounts of alcohol but limiting their total volume of alcohol due to concerns about health, work, and family.

Although students practising controlled intoxication were typically endeavouring to limit their experience of alcohol-related harm, many of these students still continued to accept a certain level of alcohol-related harm as an expected and acceptable cost of their excessive drinking behaviour. This tolerant attitude towards alcohol-related harm is consistent with the literature on risk-taking behaviour by young people, and highlights the challenges facing education-based alcohol harm-minimisation strategies that target student drinkers.

Of the 14 drinking effects that students reported using to monitor controlled intoxication, only one effect, ‘friends instructing friends to stop drinking’, was external to a student’s direct control. In 2007, the New Zealand Ministry of Transport launched a social-marketing campaign based upon ‘peer-relationships’ that encouraged friends not to allow an intoxicated friend to drink and drive.12

The New Zealand Alcohol Advisory Council has also utilised similar peer-based messages in its recent ‘Ease Up on the Drink’ campaign.13 The underlying messages of these campaigns is that ‘friends take care of friends’ and ‘friends talk to friends about their drinking behaviour’. The findings of the current study support these peer-based harm-minimisation campaigns.

The propensity of bar drinkers to limit their level of pre-loading to ensure bar entry highlights the importance of bar management and bar door-staff in setting the intoxication-threshold that some students, and arguably some of the general population, drink to prior to their arrival at on-licensed premises. The current findings support initiatives aimed at reducing the intoxication-threshold that licensed premises enforce—as a strategy to reduce pre-loading alcohol consumption amongst bar patrons.

Strengths of the study include the combined use of qualitative and quantitative research methods to provide insight into, and triangulation of, the research data.8 The findings of the current study are to an extent limited by the restricted demographics (i.e. resident student drinkers) and small size of the research population.

The research was primarily undertaken as an exploratory study and further research is required, utilising a large general population sample, to assess whether the 14 drinking effects indentified in the current study are also used by other drinkers.

If further research determined that certain drinking effects were found to be more commonly used for monitoring and managing alcohol intoxication, then harm-minimisation strategies could be developed that encourage heavy-drinkers to adopt ‘safer’ drinking-effect indicators as signals to either slow down or stop their alcohol consumption.

Summary

The majority of drinkers in the study who consumed alcohol with the intention of getting intoxicated, typically drank to a predetermined level of intoxication, and maintained that level by monitoring a range of drinking effects—this behaviour was termed ‘controlled intoxication’. Future harm-minimisation strategies could be developed that encourage heavy-drinkers to adopt ‘safer’ drinking-effect signals as indicators to slow down or stop their drinking.

Abstract

Aim

Drawn from a study aimed at exploring students’ drinking behaviour and attitudes, this article focuses upon findings that revealed how heavy-drinking students monitored and managed their experiences of alcohol intoxication.

Method

819 students residing within three university student residences were invited to participate in three phases of data collection. Utilising a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods, a total of 15 focus group interviews and 18 indepth interviews were undertaken, and 501 students (61%) completed a written survey questionnaire.

Results

Sixty percent of students agreed with the statement “I usually know beforehand if I am going to get drunk”. One-half of male drinkers and one-third of female drinkers reported they were intoxicated on a weekly basis. When drinking to intoxication, the majority of students monitored a range of drinking effects (a total of 14 were identified) which they considered were signals for the need to either slow down or stop drinking.

Conclusion

The majority of drinkers in this study who consume alcohol with the intention of getting intoxicated, typically drink to a predetermined level of intoxication, and maintain that level by monitoring a range of drinking effects—this behaviour has been termed controlled intoxication. Future harm-minimisation strategies could be developed that encourage heavy-drinkers to adopt ‘safer’ drinking-effect signals as indicators to slow down or stop drinking.

Author Information

Brett McEwan, Student; David Swain, Honorary Fellow; Maxine Campbell, Lecturer; Sociology Programme, School of Social Sciences, University of Waikato, Hamilton

Correspondence

Dr Maxine Campbell, Sociology Programme, University of Waikato, PB 3105, Hamilton, New Zealand

Correspondence Email

maxine@waikato.ac.nz

Competing Interests

None.

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