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College binge-drinking blackouts cost hundreds of thousands a year

A company that markets massive parties encouraging young to drink until they black out is under fire in New York.

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Binge drinking — considered a rite of passage by many college kids — costs the health care system half a million dollars in blackout-related emergency room visits each year at the average large university, newly published research indicates.

M. Alex Johnson

M. Alex Johnson is a reporter for msnbc.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

The report, by researchers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, extrapolated the cost by studying college students who were "problem alcohol users" over a two-year period.

A blackout — the inability to recall events without a full loss of consciousness — means sufferers can walk, talk, drive or have sex but can't remember any of it — creating a greater risk for car crashes, other accidents, unwanted pregnancy and STDs.

Just this month, nine young people ended up in a New York hospital for alcohol poisoning after a "barstool blackout party" marketed as being "by the C-student, for the C-student," NBC station WNBC reported.

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Forty-four percent of college students engage in binge drinking at one time or another, previous research indicates. For the first time, the University of Wisconsin researchers tabulated the direct financial costs of blackouts among college students who are problem alcohol users.

In a report published in the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs, Marlon P. Mundt and Larissa I. Zakletskaia surveyed nearly a thousand students at five universities — four in the U.S. and one in Canada. 

The students were all identified as problem drinkers and about half had experienced an alcohol-induced blackout in the year preceding the study.

During the two-year study, 30 percent of the men and 27 percent of the women visited the emergency department at least once, some with major injuries like broken bones and head or brain trauma. Of the 404 emergency department visits reported by 954 participants in the study, about one in eight were associated with blackout drinking, the researchers found.

Using federal figures on the average cost of ambulance-assisted emergency room visits, Mundt and Zakletskaia calculated that blackouts create $469,000 to $546,000 in direct medical expenses a year at the average large university (that is, one with 40,000 or more students). That, in turn, strains the health care system and drives up insurance rates.

The results were consistent across students' age levels and — "in spite of the fact that the women in the study drank 30 percent less alcohol than the men" — gender, the report said.

The findings are especially pertinent now as thousands of students flock to Florida, Texas and Arizona on spring break.

"The problem we run into on spring break is that people really load up on alcohol very, very quickly before it's really had a chance to kick in," said Dr. Kevin Kulow of Gulf Coast Medical Center in Panama City, Fla.

"When you down a dozen Jello shots in the space of 30 minutes, that alcohol is going to hit you all at once, and you can really load up and get a stomach full of alcohol before it's really absorbed," Kulow told NBC station WJHG of Panama City.

"When it really hits you, it comes on like a ton of bricks," he said.

Mundt and Zakletskaia called binge drinking that can lead to a blackout (usually defined as drinking five or more alcoholic drinks by men or four by women during one occasion)  "a pervasive public health problem" among college students. They said their research could point the way to better public service efforts to reduce heavy drinking by students.

"Fifty percent of college students who drink report alcohol-induced blackouts, and alcohol abusers in general put a heavy burden on the medical care system," they wrote, concluding: 

"In our cost estimate, potentially close to half a million dollars could be saved in emergency department utilization costs on a large university campus each year if interventions targeting blackout sufferers were successful."

NBC station WJHG of Panama City, Fla., contributed to this report.

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