Drinking to excess on one's 21st birthday has become a tradition on campuses nationwide. Tragically, some don't live to regret their binge.
When a young woman enters a bar wearing a glittery crown and a beauty-queen sash, bartenders know what to do: Pour a free shot; someone's turning 21.
"They're very eager," said bartender John Cordas of the Ugly Tuna Saloona near the Ohio State University campus. "You can always tell, because they come in with a group of friends (who) sit at the bar and take turns buying shots for that person."
Those turning 21 arrive at the Saloona nightly at midnight, but few try to drink their age in shots, a fad glorified in drunken videos on YouTube and MySpace.
"I've only seen one kid try it, and he didn't get very far before he got pretty sick," Cordas said. "After eight or nine shots, you're pretty drunk."
Twenty-one shots, at 1.5 ounces a glass, would be more than a fifth of liquor.
Every year, 21-year-olds drink themselves to death.
"It's probably the most dangerous drinking occasion for students," said Steven W. Clarke, director of the Campus Alcohol Abuse Prevention Center at Virginia Tech.
Clarke has studied 21st-birthday celebrations to determine why they encourage excessive drinking and how to make them less dangerous.
Free drinks are a major contributor to the problem, he found. Bars often give a free shot or drink to the newly legal, and then friends start buying the booze.
"College students don't typically buy drinks for each other, so they feel it would be rude not to consume them," Clarke said.
New drinkers also drain their glasses quickly, he said. They often start at midnight and try to down as many drinks as they can before the bar closes at 1 or 2 a.m.
Two states have found the practice so alarming that they outlawed it. Bars in Minnesota and North Dakota can't serve 21-year-olds until 8 a.m. on their birthday.
Ohio State junior Jeffy Mai said he doesn't know anyone who drank "21 at 21," but he said drinking on your 21st birthday is "a big thing" on campus. When he turned 21 in December, his friends bought all the drinks, he said. He drank enough to do a "weird chicken dance" at Hooters.
Toben Nelson, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota, said about 1,700 college students die each year of alcohol-related causes. About 300 of those deaths are from falls or alcohol poisoning, he said.
At least two 21-year-olds have died in Franklin County from drinking too much on their birthdays, according to the coroner's office.
OSU student Adam Boncela had a blood-alcohol content of 0.37 percent when he died on July 25, 2005; that's the equivalent of drinking about 18 shots in two hours. Blackouts and nausea are common with a blood-alcohol content of 0.16 percent to 0.19 percent; death can occur at a level of 0.30 percent.
Ohio University junior Nathan A. Roberts of Findlay died of acute intoxication in a house near Ohio State after drinking heavily on his 21st birthday in 2001. His blood-alcohol content was 0.36 percent.
One way to reduce deaths is for bars and servers to be more accountable, said Nelson, who has written extensively about student drinking.
"There are laws about not serving someone who's obviously intoxicated, but they're rarely enforced," he said. "We've done studies by having people go into bars and act intoxicated, and three-fourths of the time they're served alcohol."
Ohio State sends an e-mail to students about to turn 21. The message is from the sister of OSU student Joey Upshaw, who died after ingesting drugs and alcohol in 2000. Erica Upshaw urges students: "Be careful on your 21st birthday" and "do not feel like you have to take 21 shots."
But Virginia Tech's Clarke said such warnings have "no significant effect" on how much students drink.
"We also tried weekly e-mails for four weeks before their birthdays, and that had no significant effect, either," he said.
Parents should encourage their children to take charge of their birthday celebration, Clarke said.
"Set a specific limit on drinks or the amount of time you're drinking," Clarke said. "Friends will be saying, 'We're going to take you out and get drunk.' It's your birthday. You'd think you could take control."
source: Columbus Daily Dispatch