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Beechert: Actually, It’s A Bit More Tame

bier.jpgReader question time! A Dartblog fan recently wrote in to request that I compare the drinking habits of German college students with those of their American counterparts. Keeping in mind that anecdotal evidence and personal experience can only be so valuable, allow me to paint with a broad brush.

I would maintain that binge drinking as it is commonly understood — consuming too much alcohol within a certain timeframe — is significantly less common at German universities than at American ones. At the very least, drinking to excess is not the celebrated part of the student culture here that it is in the United States; over-intoxication is for the most part frowned upon in the Vaterland. While there are certainly opportunities to get blind drunk for those so inclined, alcohol is generally used as a social lubricant and not as a means of competition. Simply put, things are a bit more low-key, which is perhaps the reason why the entire nation of Germany is more or less open-container; it is not unusual to see professionals in suits sipping a bottle of beer on the sidewalk or the train ride home.

Statistics comparing the prevalence of binge drinking across student populations in different countries are very difficult to find, but results from a 2014 World Health Organization study show that Germany has a slightly lower incidence of “heavy episodic drinking,” which can be thought of as consuming the equivalent of five 12 oz. beers or 5 oz. glasses of wine on one occasion at least once a month. The difference between the German (12.5%) and American (16.9%) rates is not particularly significant, but the UK (28%) and Ireland (39%) stand out as more severely afflicted.

The statistics cited from the WHO report refer to the entire population over the age of 15, not just college students, so take from it what you will. Additionally, “scientific” definitions of binge drinking are notoriously finicky. While it shouldn’t become a habit, drinking five cans of beer over the course of a few hours will probably not, for an average-sized adult male, lead to the sort of dangerous intoxication or vomiting that people tend to use as a mental barometer for binge drinking. Studies with such low definitional thresholds may therefore paint an inaccurate picture of how often people are truly drinking to excess. Anecdotally, I can say that although many German students may meet the WHO’s standard for a binge on a semi-regular basis, they seem to be much less likely to, for example, gulp down and then throw up ten beers in a single evening than your typical American frat bro.

At the very least, the WHO study demonstrates how the (tired) argument that the United States’ high drinking age leads to an unsafe relationship with alcohol is probably barking up the wrong tree. The UK and Ireland, which as mentioned above enjoy a greater general prevalence of heavy episodic drinking, have a legal drinking age of 18, as do Lithuania (36.6%) and Finland (36.5%). For university students at the very least, more reasonable explanations for dangerous behavior can be found elsewhere.

When comparing the U.S. to Germany (where the drinking age for beer and wine is 16), it’s particularly instructive to look at the respective settings in which socializing over alcohol normally occurs. Because German universities don’t have the types of residential campuses and Greek houses that are ubiquitous in the American system, there are fewer (if any) centralized clearinghouses for alcohol consumption. Instead, drinking generally occurs in public establishments or smaller private gatherings, where familiar, watchful eyes and a lack of anonymity tend to discourage more reckless activity.

Beer, moreover, which is about as important to Germany as baguettes are to France, is the drink of choice; hard liquor does not enjoy quite the following here that it does among American college students. Because it’s considerably easier to overdose on shots of vodka than on Augustiner, German students may end up pacing themselves a bit more reasonably. That being said, not all Germans are always on their best behavior. The vomit on the sidewalks of Berlin has to come from somewhere.

Addendum: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has published a factsheet on drinking by college students.

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