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Study Abroad Issues: College Students and Alcohol Consumption

New study finds students who study abroad drink more

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Tapas Bar Photo by Cristina Arias/Getty Images

If your college kid is heading to Europe, Asia or elsewhere for a semester of study abroad, there are a number of topics you need to discuss before he boards that plane: passports, customs, manners - and alcohol consumption. Heavy drinking anywhere endangers a student's safety - but do it abroad, in a country whose laws, customs and terrain are not as well known, and the stakes can rise dramatically.

A 2010 University of Washington study dubbed "When in Rome," published in the Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, found that U.S. students who study abroad double their alcohol intake - from four drinks a week to eight - while away. And underage drinkers triple their alcohol consumption, a jump, researchers said, likely linked to more lenient drinking laws in other countries. The study also found that once back home, drinking rates tended to go back to their pre-travel amounts. As you might expect, the amount imbibed depended on where the student was, with the higher numbers in Europe, New Zealand and Australia.

But this is one of those provocative studies that raises more questions than it answers. Is the jump from four drinks a week to eight an uptick in binge drinking? Or simply a glass of wine with dinner each night, which would be utterly normal in a Roman trattoria or Madrid tapas bar, as opposed to, say, a Huntsville, Ala. cafeteria. "We can't really say if this is risky drinking or not," said Eric Pedersen, a UW psychology grad student and one of the authors of the study.

Why the researchers didn't pose those questions during the study is a mystery. But the concern, of course, is that undergrads who drink to excess can get into considerably more trouble when they don't know the terrain, the customs or laws. Make sure you include alcohol consumption in your list of pre-travel discussion topics.

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