Saturday, May 30, 2009

Study Probes Military’s “Culture of Binge and Underage Drinking”

Problems continue after active duty.

A University of Minnesota study found a level of underage binge drinking in the military that the study’s lead author called “dangerous to both the drinkers and those around them.” Mandy Stahre, the epidemiologist who headed up the study, said the results were disturbing, “given the equipment and dangerous environments commonly encountered by active duty military personnel.”

The article, “Binge Drinking Among U.S. Active-Duty Military Personnel,” appears in the March issue of The American Journal of Preventative Medicine. Researchers at the University of Minnesota and the Centers for Disease Control analyzed the results of an anonymous health survey of 16,000 military personnel conducted in 2005. (The group defined binge drinking as four or more drinks in one session for men, and three or more drinks for women.) In an interview with a University of Minnesota radio station, Stahre said that 43 percent of the active respondents reported binge drinking in the past month. Stahre said the figure represents “a total of 30 million episodes of binge drinking, or 32 episodes of binge drinking per person per year.” 5 million of those episodes, Stahre said, involved active duty personnel under the age of 21.

These figures are scarcely surprising, but the implications are no less nerve-wracking. Stahre said military binge drinkers were five times more likely to drive while drinking, compared to non-binge drinkers. Moreover, binge drinking is chronically under-reported in the military, Stahre said, cautioning that the conclusions in the study “may be conservative.” She called for an increase in alcohol excise taxes, stricter military enforcement of a minimum drinking age of 21, and “greater efforts at screening and counseling for alcohol misuse” in the military.

What can a study of this nature accomplish? Stahre said she hopes it will provide “further evidence that binge drinking is a major public health problem in the U.S. and in the military. And the military may be in a unique position to help reduce this problem in the general population, particularly given that nearly 13 percent of U.S. adults report current or past military service.”

Last summer, a study published in the August 13 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) demonstrated that Reserve and National Guard combat personnel returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were at increased risk for “new-onset heavy drinking, binge drinking and other alcohol-related problems.” The article also found a strong association between posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSE) and substance abuse among returning veterans.

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