Binge drinking rises, with heavy toll in Illinois

The wine selection at CVS Pharmacy on Michigan Avenue. (Rachel Newman/MEDILL)

By Rachel Newman

University of Illinois alum Erin McPartlin, 26, wasn’t surprised when she learned that a student had died during the university’s annual “Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day.”

Held on the first Friday of March, the holiday revolves around day-long binge drinking, and many students don’t know their limits, McPartlin said.

“Freshman year and on, when I was in school, I always heard stories about people dying,” said McPartlin, who graduated in 2013 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting. “I think that it’s just out of control. These things aren’t really freak accidents. You know something bad’s going to happen.”

The March 3 event ended in tragedy when Jonathan Gonzalez, a 23-year-old communications major from Franklin Park, Ill., died after falling off a fourth-floor apartment balcony. Gonzalez’s passing is the third Unofficial-related death since the event’s founding in 1995, University spokeswoman Robin Kaler told The Daily Illini.

Unofficial has led to 178 hospitalizations since 2009, including 20 this year, according to The News-Gazette.

These unfortunate events highlight the potential consequences of binge drinking–consequences that aren’t just limited to Big 10 students.

Binge drinking by the numbers

Binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more alcoholic beverages in a two-hour period for women, or five or more drinks in one sitting for men.

Twenty-four percent of adults reported at least one heavy drinking day in 2015, compared with 19.85 percent in 2005, the Centers for Disease Control reported.

In Illinois, nearly 21 percent of residents reported one heavy drinking day in the last 30 days, averaging 7.1 drinks on each binge drinking occasion.

In addition to health risks, excessive alcohol consumption has real economic consequences.

Problems related to excessive drinking cost the United States $249 billion in 2010, according to a 2015 study by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine.

The state of Illinois incurred $9.72 billion, or $757 per person, in costs related to excessive alcohol consumption in 2010, the study reported. That’s nearly three times the median cost incurred by other states.

For 77 percent of these costs, binge drinking was the culprit.

While long-term alcohol use can lead to costly health conditions like heart disease or cancer, binge drinking is more often associated with accidents, such as car crashes and falls, and increased risk of assault, said Daniel Fridberg, an addiction expert and psychologist at the University of Chicago.

American culture and heavy drinking

If the health and economic benefits of abstaining from binge drinking are bountiful, so is the cultural pressure to imbibe. McPartlin said that she understands why U. of I. students participate in Unofficial. She partook in the festivities when she was a student there, as well.

“I wanted to do it because everyone else was doing it, but I also know my limits when, so it didn’t get out of hand,” McPartlin said.

Heavy drinking isn’t a problem exclusive to college students; 33.2 percent of adults age 25 to 44 reported at least one heavy drinking day in 2015, compared with 30.1 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds.

While men typically show higher rates of heavy drinking, young women are catching up: 17.4 percent of women reported at least one heavy drinking day in 2015, compared with 11.6 percent in 2005, according to the CDC.

“If society views this as a guys’ problem, then women are potentially going to be reluctant to seek treatment, and the treatments we have aren’t necessarily going to target women,” Fridberg said.

Changing cultural norms that have led women to enter male-dominated fields, earn higher incomes and delay marriage may have given some women the time, resources and desire to imbibe, Fridberg said.

Regardless of gender, Fridberg said, he hopes his patients understand the recommended limit and enjoy alcohol with caution.

The CDC recommends that women consume no more than eight alcoholic beverages a week and no more than three in one sitting; men should consume no more than 15 alcoholic beverages a week and no more than four in one sitting.

Life without alcohol

The health risks associated with heavy alcohol use have led some drinkers to change their ways.

Andy Boyle, a Chicago-based writer, decided to quit drinking in 2013 after noticing his health was suffering. He weighed more than 300 pounds at the time and had developed sleep apnea.

Though he was doing well at his day job as a web developer, he wasn’t completing his passion projects.

Before he knew it, two years had passed. He lost 75 pounds, started sleeping better, and noticed that he was happier and more productive.

Boyle wrote about this experience in an article for the Chicago Tribune that went viral and led to a book deal. Boyle’s memoir and advice book “Adulthood for Beginners: All the Life Secrets Nobody Bothered to Tell You” will be released by Penguin Random House in May.

“If anyone’s ever thinking ‘Man, I think I’m drinking too much,’ that could be their subconscious saying, ‘Maybe it’s time to get help,’” Boyle said. “And there’s nothing wrong at all with reaching out to loved ones or professionals for help.”

The wine selection at CVS Pharmacy on Michigan Avenue. (Rachel Newman/MEDILL)