Drinking among young adults, particularly those in college, is an important public health issue (e.g., Hingson, Heeren, Winter, & Wechsler, 2005
). From an array of risky collegiate drinking practices, hazardous drinking associated with the 21st birthday has emerged as a major concern for college administrators, student health service professionals, and public officials (e.g., American College Health Association, 2002
). Furthermore, media reports have highlighted the problem by describing practices such as “21 for 21” and the “power hour” and by reporting the tragic deaths due to these risky practices (e.g., Zernike, 2005
). Nevertheless, despite increased awareness of the problem, the prevalence and severity of and risk factors for 21st birthday drinking are not well characterized.
We have identified only three published studies on this topic (Neighbors, Oster-Aaland, Bergstrom, & Lewis, 2006
; Neighbors, Spieker, Oster-Aaland, Lewis, & Bergstrom, 2005
; Smith, Bogle, Talbott, Grant, & Castillo, 2006
). These studies provided preliminary evidence that a majority of 21st birthday celebrants consume alcohol and that their drinking levels are alarmingly high; however, these findings are limited by ascertainment biases of unknown magnitude resulting from low participation rates,1
and it is likely that the prevalence and severity of birthday drinking are underestimated in these studies.
In the present study we extend what is known about alcohol consumption on the 21st birthday by using data from a large prospective study of college drinking. Our first goal was to estimate the prevalence and severity of 21st birthday drinking in a large sample with high participation rates. In addition, our study examined the existence of the “21 for 21” phenomenon reported by the media. Our second goal was to examine risk factors associated with the occurrence and intensity of 21st birthday drinking. Although a range of possible variables could be considered, we elected to focus on those variables most consistently associated with drinking in college students (e.g., Jackson, Sher, & Park, 2006
), including demographics, high-risk group affiliations (i.e., membership in fraternities or sororities), and substance use history. Although we anticipated that recent drinking patterns would be the strongest correlates of 21st birthday drinking, we were interested in the extent to which high-risk behaviors prior to college, such as early onset problematic alcohol use (e.g., Sartor, Lynskey, Heath, Jacob, & True, 2006
) and conduct disorder symptoms (e.g., Sher, Grekin, & Williams, 2005
), might predict drinking on a given occasion in college. We also sought to discover whether birthday drinking is associated with cigarette use because of the acute cross-tolerance of alcohol with nicotine that might facilitate drinking to extreme levels (Sher, Wood, Richardson, & Jackson, 2005