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Fraternity leaders are the heaviest drinkers, national study shows

When it comes to fraternity drinking, following the leader can be a dangerous game, a new study released today (Dec. 15, 1997) shows.

Leaders of fraternities, and to a lesser extent leaders of sororities, tend to be among the heaviest drinkers and the most out-of-control partiers, according to researchers at Cornell University and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Their national survey of 25,411 students at 61 institutions reveals that Greek leaders are helping to set norms of binge drinking and uncontrolled behavior.

"In contrast to our expectations, we found that the leaders of Greek societies were among the worst offenders with respect to binge drinking," said Philip W. Meilman, director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell and one of the three researchers involved in the study. "These are the very individuals we would hope would be most concerned about liability and legal issues, as well as other serious consequences related to drinking. But surprisingly, we found that the more involved a person is with Greek life, the higher the drinking level and the greater the adverse consequences."

The study, entitled "Alcohol Use in the Greek System: Follow the Leader?" was co-authored by Jeffrey R. Cashin, Cheryl A. Presley and Meilman, all affiliated with the Core Institute at Southern Illinois. The report appears in the January 1998 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, released today. The journal, published by the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, has been a leader in promoting peer-reviewed research in the substance-abuse field since 1940.

The authors call the results of their study, which come in the wake of several recent, tragic fraternity deaths nationally, "disconcerting" and have advice for college administrators on how to tackle this problem.

In the study, students were categorized according to their degree of involvement in fraternity/sorority life: those who were in leadership positions, those who were actively involved members (but not leaders), those who attended functions only, and those who had no involvement in Greek life. Researchers asked students to report binge drinking episodes (defined as having five or more drinks in a row), the average number of alcoholic drinks they consumed per week, the adverse consequences they had experienced in the previous year due to alcohol or other drug use, and the beliefs they hold regarding alcohol.

The survey revealed:

-- Seventy-four percent of fraternity leaders reported episodes of binge drinking in the previous two weeks, and leaders on average consumed 14 drinks a week. Sorority leaders reported a 55 percent binge drinking rate and six drinks per week.

-- For actively involved fraternity members (non-leaders), 73 percent reported binge drinking episodes and an average consumption of 12 drinks per week. For actively involved sorority members, the numbers were 57 percent and six drinks, respectively.

-- For those who reported only attending fraternity/sorority events, 58 percent of the men and 46 percent of the women reported episodes of binge drinking, and an average weekly consumption of 8 and 4 drinks, respectively.

-- The figures for students not involved in Greek life were the lowest of all. Forty-two percent of the men and 26 percent of the women reported binge drinking episodes. Non-Greeks reported an average weekly consumption of six drinks for men and two drinks for women.

The authors also found dramatic differences in the adverse consequences experienced by the students in the previous year as a result of their use of alcohol or other drugs:

-- Hangovers: For males, leaders reported in at 82 percent; actively involved members, 79 percent; those attending functions only, 72 percent; those not involved, 57 percent. For females, leaders reported in at 79 percent; actively involved members, 72 percent; those attending functions only, 66 percent; those not involved, 50 percent.

-- Arguments and fights: For males, leaders reported in at 53 percent; actively involved members, 46 percent; attended functions only, 38 percent; those not involved, 26 percent. For females, leaders reported in at 44 percent; actively involved members, 41 percent; those who attended functions only, 36 percent; those not involved, 23 percent.

-- Blackouts: For males, leaders reported in at 53 percent; actively involved members, 44 percent; those attending functions only, 39 percent; those not involved, 23 percent. For females, leaders reported in at 46 percent; actively involved members, 42 percent; those attending functions only, 38 percent; those not involved, 19 percent.

In addition, the researchers looked at beliefs that students hold about alcohol. Among the more striking findings was the clear connection between alcohol and sexuality. Approximately 68 percent of the men and 50 percent of the women involved in Greek life endorsed the belief that alcohol facilitates sexual opportunities, compared with 53 percent of the men and 37 percent of the women who were not involved in Greek life. Similar patterns were evident with respect to beliefs regarding social interaction.

"Students see alcohol as a vehicle for friendship, social activity and sexual opportunity, and these beliefs clearly occur to a greater extent among Greeks than non-Greeks," Presley said. "Because of their positions of responsibility, we expected that the leaders would hold more moderate views, but we found that this was not the case. Fraternity and sorority leaders view alcohol in a way that is consistent with that of their fellow members."

"Disconcerting" is how the study's authors describe these findings. They write: "One would expect that the leaders would be sensitive to the risk management and liability issues by virtue of their positions of responsibility and that they would be attempting to serve as role models for members and prospective members. Clearly this is not the case insofar as drinking is concerned and stands in contrast to our hypotheses. In other words, the leaders are participating in setting norms of heavy drinking and behavioral loss of control."

Asked to explain the connection in the data between Greek life and drinking, Cashin said, "From the data we cannot say if it is the case that heavy drinkers are attracted to Greek life, or if Greek life promotes heavy drinking practices, or if it is some combination of both. However, common sense and observation would suggest that a combination of both factors is involved."

Based on their findings, the authors have advice for college and university administrators: "Prevention programming efforts targeting the leaders of fraternities and sororities would be advisable, and research examining the trickle-down effects of such programming for other organization members would be especially interesting," they write.

In addition, Cashin, Presley and Meilman advocate further research into the belief systems of leaders to come to a better understanding of why they feel compelled to drink so excessively.

"It is important to have fraternity and sorority organizations as well as campus administrators and faculty talk together about these issues," Meilman said. "The findings are dramatic and the issues are too serious to ignore. These are real life concerns that everyone involved in campus life needs to attend to."

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