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How Did Your Kid Turn 21?

I drank my share of beer in college. But there's a new campus imbibing ritual that even I find startling.

It's called "21 for 21." And it works like this: When a student turns 21, he or she celebrates with friends by downing 21 beers, wine coolers, shots or some other alcoholic concoction. That's right: 21 drinks.

Sound like fun? Drink until you barf on your birthday cake? And hope you live to be 22.

While this dangerous behavior has drawn some scientific attention in the past, there hasn't been much careful research validating how common it actually is. Until now.

In the largest attempt to study this trend, Patricia Rutledge of the University of Missouri -- Columbia and Allegheny College and colleagues analyzed data collected from 2,518 University of Missouri students about their drinking habits as part of a larger study of college drinking.

Four out of five of the students said they had consumed at least some alcohol on their 21st birthday, and of those 12 percent said they downed 21 drinks to celebrate. Another 22 percent of the men and 12 percent of the women reported they drank even more. In some cases it was a lot more. Some women put away about 30 drinks. The drunkest guys downed about 50. That's right: 50.

Based on the findings, the researchers estimated that 68 percent of the women and 79 percent of the men who drank on their birthdays had blood alcohol levels of 0.08 or higher--a level defined as a binge by the federal government. About half the men and more than one-third of the women had blood alcohol levels of 0.26 or higher, which would constitute severe alcohol intoxication, which can cause serious health problems, including coma and even death.

An average woman would have to drink between seven and nine drinks an hour to end up with a blood alcohol level that high. The average man would have to down between 10 and 12.

We're talking alcohol poisoning territory.

The study, which is being published in next month's issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology was limited to just one school. Even so, the findings indicate that binge drinking is "pervasive" among college students .

That suggests more needs to be done to educate students about the dangers of this behavior. A lot more.

By Rob Stein  |  May 22, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Alcohol and Drugs  
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Comments

Unfortunately this is not new. I went to college some 30 years ago. The drinking age in my state was 21 (18 in most other states). We definitely had the "21er" ritual. I for one could not complete the task. Nevertheless, I was ill for 2 days afterward -- the whole episode tops my list of things I regret the most.

Posted by: S1234P | May 22, 2008 8:18 AM | Report abuse

...to hear this type of behavior takes place on college campuses! Seriously, is this surprising to anyone that has graduated within the last decade or two?

Posted by: I'm shocked...SHOCKED... | May 22, 2008 8:27 AM | Report abuse

My brother's friend was taken to the hospital after trying and succeeding at completing this 21 for 21 "challenge". When I heard about this all I could think of: what a damned good way to spend your birthday! And this is a very good kid doing this. He probably would have died if he tried to do what the article says some attempt (30 to 50 drinks). It is beyond stupid!

Posted by: Ithink | May 22, 2008 8:40 AM | Report abuse

Over what period of time, though? No human being can down 30-50 drinks in one sitting and not die (or wretch all over the bartop...).

After all, Newman Day is a popular activity now, simply because of the challenge (which i wouldn't exactly consider the sort of intoxication health risk that this article's trying to imply with the 21-for-21 phenomenon): "24 hours in a day; 24 beers in a case. Coincidence?"

Posted by: Wakka Wakka | May 22, 2008 9:14 AM | Report abuse

I have to believe that those reporting 50 drinks consumed in one night were likely not telling the truth. Or they do not know the real measurements of one drink. I would venture to guess that even coming close to that number would be impossible for even the biggest and heaviest drinking men.

Those who I knew that went for 21 on their 21st typically began drinking around lunch and continued until after midnight. It is still enough to make one sick, but the length of time involved lessened the impact.

Posted by: Jimmy D | May 22, 2008 9:16 AM | Report abuse

Poltically Correct B.S. I'm a 38yo male and consumed 21+ drinks on my 21st birthday. I'm alive. I didn't have alcohol poisoning. Why is it so much in the limelight now than it was 20 years ago? Because people want to blame everything on somebody else. It wasn't the parents, it was the school! It wasn't the school, it was the liqour stores! It wasn't the liqour stores, it was the alcohol content! and on and on.

Kids will be kids...and yes, 21 is still a kid, and if brought up right or wrong they will STILL do what they want and make their own decisions. The best we can do is hope they make the right ones.

Posted by: Sterling Park | May 22, 2008 9:19 AM | Report abuse

wow! even 20 years ago in college on my biggest drinking days i couldnt do 21 drinks. not for lack of trying. i may have been ripped beyond belief but at a certain point i just couldn't make it happen!

Posted by: nall92 | May 22, 2008 9:40 AM | Report abuse

I choose to abstain from celebration on the days surrounding my 21st birthday. I knew there was going to be great pressure to down 21 drinks so I just avoided the situation all together. Told my friends I was going out with my parents that night...waited about a week before partying again.

Weak? Maybe, but to my mind the only worse way to spend a 21st birthday than downing 21 drinks is to have to refuse, fervently, dozens of requests to take a shot or chug a beer. The third option, to avoid the situation all together, was the best one IMHO.

This is the type of decision youth are forced to make. Its no suprise so many end up in such bad shape on their 21st...

Posted by: Ed S. | May 22, 2008 9:41 AM | Report abuse

Ed. S. - I think this is more telling of your friend set, and your inability to deal with their peer pressure by passive aggressively acting out. I had such great friends at 21, that if I didn't want to consume alcohol it would not have been a big deal at ALL.

Posted by: Christina | May 22, 2008 10:00 AM | Report abuse

On his 21st birthday my younger brother went out to a local bar with his friends from college. It was the first week of his Junior year. They encouraged him to try the 21 shots for his 21st birthday. He was encouraged to take as many as possible in as short of a time as possible. He made it to about 15-16 before throwing up and passing out in the bathroom. This was about an hour and a half into the night.
Some of his friends wisely decided it was time to go home. (They had been out for support mostly and two of them hadn't been drinking, thank god.) One of them happened to have some Medic training from the military. My brother stopped breathing in the car on the way home. Thanks to his friend with medical training, they managed to revive him and drove him to the hospital. I don't remember the alcohol level in his blood but it was high. He nearly died.
He got lucky to be with good friends who knew what to do. He was stupid and never really thought it could happen to him. He was suspended for a semester at school. (Private military university with strict rules.) As another result, he cannot drink much anymore. Two drinks now and he starts to feel ill and panicky.
It's not new and way too common but it IS a danger and young adults need to realize how dangerous it can be. Yes some people may have done it and come out alive or with no scars but there are many who haven't.

Posted by: Cari | May 22, 2008 10:07 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Jimmy D - who drinks 50 drinks and is even able to remember that let alone be capable of counting that high during consumption? I have a feeling the information we are receiving in this column is only part of the study - I'd like to see what variables were looked at (or not) and what kind of correlations the study came to. Columns and report of studies performed usually only report bits and pieces of information likely to cause a stir.

Posted by: WDC | May 22, 2008 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Like others have suggested, I'd like the research into "What percentage of subjects lied about consumption?" Bragging about how much you can drink is often just as popular a passtime for college kids as actually drinking.

I've seen people do this many times before. One time a friend did 18 for his 18th in an hour and a half. He threw up after about 10, and then about every other shot until he was done. And I've seen people spread out 21 drinks over the course of 10-12 hours. That's a pace slower than some kids on a "regular" friday night.

Posted by: BW | May 22, 2008 10:58 AM | Report abuse

I did 21 lines of crystal meth when I turned 21 :-)

Posted by: Weeby | May 22, 2008 11:01 AM | Report abuse

I'm 34 years old and on my 21st Bday, I also downed 21 drinks. No big deal, I threw up a few hours after the party and I was all better in the morning, albeit a little hung over. Heck, just last week I drank 20 drinks without throwing up!

Posted by: 9.5" | May 22, 2008 11:28 AM | Report abuse

I drank 21 drinks when I turned 21.

I snorted 31 lines of coke when I turned 31.

Hmm... what can I do for 41?

Any suggestions?

I'm 34 now if that helps. I was thinking of maybe banging 41 prostitutes?

Posted by: Mike | May 22, 2008 11:36 AM | Report abuse

I heard the legendary story over my car radio as I was heading down I-5 to work about a year ago, listening to Mitch in the Morning on 950 KJR, as usual. For some reason or another, Mitch was gone that day so Steve Sandmeyer was hosting the show, and former Mariners and Yankees pitcher Jeff Nelson was sitting in as his sidekick.

Sandmeyer was killing some time by making small talk about baseball and about Nelly's career and exploits as a major leaguer. boggschicken.jpg The conversation turned to some of the funniest things Nelly had seen in his career when Sandy asked something like "who was the best with the ladies out of everyone you were around in baseball?" Nelson said that it was tough to say for sure, but that he figured it was probably Andre Dawson, the former Expos, Cubs, Red Sox, and Marlins slugger.

The two shared a laugh about the Hawk's game, and then Sandmeyer stumbled upon the most compelling question ever articulated in an interview: "who would you say drank the most beer out of everyone you ever played with?" The following colloquy sheds some light on one of drinking's biggest stars and on one of the greatest drinking feats of all time.

Sandy: Who would you say drank the most beer out of everyone you ever played with?

Nelson: Easy, Wade Boggs.....easy

Sandy: (laughing) Really!? Wade Boggs?

Nelson: Oh, yeah, without a doubt. I've never seen anyone drink as much beer as he did in my life:

Sandy: (laughing) Get outta here, alright, give me an example, like how much did he drink?

Nelson: Oh, I'd say, on a typical road trip, east coast to west coast [Nelly played with Boggs on the Yankees], say a road game to Seattle......Wade would drink anywhere between 50 and 60 beers.

Sandy: NO WAY!! 50 or 60 beers. That is impossible.

Nelson: No, I know...I know how crazy that sounds, and I wouldn't believe it myself unless I saw him do it.....numerous times. And he drank nothing but Miller Lite.

Sandy: How in the hell did he have time to drink that many beers. For God's sake, how many times did he have to go to the bathroom?

Nelson: I'm not kidding you Steve. Seriously. Wade was the kind of guy who was always the first one at the club house. wade_boggs_yankees.jpgSo he'd get to the clubhouse, and he'd bring a six pack with him. He'd be there drinking a beer when someone showed up, and as we were all packing our stuff up out of our lockers and getting our bags ready for the trip, Wade would sit there and drink that whole six pack.

Now, at the time, we were flying out of New Jersey, so it was somewhat of a drive from Yankee stadium to the airport in New Jersey. Wade would drink another couple of beers on the bus to the airport. At the time, we were flying this older airplane, it couldn't make it across the country without refueling, and it wasn't the fastest airplane in the sky. So we would stop in North Dakota or something. Wade would drink about a half rack between New Jersey and North Dakota, and it would take about a half-hour to an hour to refuel once we got there, so he'd have a few more beers while we were grounded in North Dakota.

Once we got back up in the air, Wade would drink another 10, 11, 12 beers on the way out to the west coast. The whole flight from coast to coast ususally took us well over 7 hours. We'd touch down at Sea-Tac, hop on the bus headed to the Kingdome, and Wade would have another beer or two on the bus. Then, all of us would get to the Kingdome and unpack our bags and sit around and BS with eachother, and Wade would have a beer in his hand the entire time. He was always one of the last people to leave the club house too. So I'd say that all in all, he drank over 50 beers on the trip, and this wasn't just an isolated incident, he did that almost every time.

Sandy: Unbelievable. That's absolutely unbelieveable.

Nelson: Yeah, I know, I'm not kidding though, let's call up somebody and they'll tell you man, they'll tell you I'm not lying.

Sandy: Alright, who should we call up. Let's take a commercial break, and then we'll call up somebody and see if we can't get to the bottom of this....This is absolutely amazing.

[commercial break: When the commercial end, Paul Sorrento, a former Mariner and Devil Ray, and Boggs's and Nelly's former teammate, is on the phone]

Nelly: Hey Paul, good to hear from you man, I haven't talked to you in a while. boggscelebration.jpg

Sorrento: Yeah, what's it been like, two, three years?

Nelly: Yeah. Hey, Paul, just to clarify now, I didn't speak to you over the commercial break, and I haven't talked to you about anything since we last talked a few years ago right?

Sorrento: Yeah, right.

Nelly: Alright Paul, we've been talking about Wade Boggs up here today in Seattle.

Sorrento: (laughing) Yeah, ole Wade huh.

Nelly: Yeah, alright Paul, I need you to answer one question for me, truthfully now....How many beers would Wade Boggs drink on an east coast to west coast road trip?

Sorrento: Oh, jeez, (exhaling like a flat tire) I don't know, like 70.

Nelly, Sandberg, Sorrento, Hank: (Rolling on the ground laughing)

So there you have it, that's the wonderful tale of Wade Boggs' incredible drinking feats. So one day when a few of us at tasty booze were hanging around crushing some ice cold Miller Lites, and after I told them the story of Wade Boggs, we decided from then on that we would call a Miller Lite a Boggs in honor of the man who drank 'em the best.

Posted by: Wade F'ing Boggs | May 22, 2008 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Whenever my wife and I go on vacation to the woods for 3 days, I generally buy about 12 cases of beer. I routinely drink about 70-100 beers a day on vacation, easily. Yes, 12oz Icehouse cans. I'll drink about 4 cases per day and I'm not falling down drunk, just very happy with a nice all day buzz. I've never thrown up doing this either. But I am always pissing in the woods though!

Posted by: Jack | May 22, 2008 12:22 PM | Report abuse

21 drinks isn't that bad when you consider the time line of the drinking. First, you probably start drinking after classes, or skip classes and start drinking before noon. Then you continue to drink till the bars close at around 3 am. Overall, 21 beers in ~15 hours really isn't that bad, dangerous, or difficult to do.

Posted by: Wolfcastle | May 22, 2008 12:40 PM | Report abuse

We always did 21 shots of beer-21 1oz shots, which, last tiem I checked, was less that two cans. If you're doing 21 cans/pints/whatevers, maybe I can work up the outrage. But the way we did it? not so much.

Posted by: we did it | May 22, 2008 12:46 PM | Report abuse

...laughs disdainfully at your 21 shots of beer...

Posted by: Wade Boggs... | May 22, 2008 12:50 PM | Report abuse

To "we did it." 21 shots of beer? ...of 1oz SHOTS of beer?

You and your friends are Pu**ies.

Posted by: 9.5" | May 22, 2008 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Is anyone willing to acknowledge that the entire driving force behind such "celebration" and binge drinking is the "forbidden fruit" aspect of alcohol in the United States, driven largely by the drinking age being set at 21? I can remember a day when many states allowed beer and wine to 18- or 19- year-olds and hard stuff at 21. Although there are still problems with drinking, alcoholism, and drunk driving in general in other countries that allow drinking at younger ages, there is far less of a problem with alcohol poisoning, binge drinking, and dangerous levels of intoxication. Unfortunately, the neo-Prohibitionist mindset of much of American culture and society basically makes it impossible to teach young people, even in the privacy of their own homes, the pleasures and perils of alcohol consumption, and the benefits of moderation and acclimation. It's comparable to barring a person from any car or lawn tractor, then handing them the keys to an Indy racing car or Porsche the minute they hit eighteen, with no driving lessons. If such a mentality is foolish for automobiles, why is it effectively national policy for alcohol?

Posted by: Alexander | May 22, 2008 12:54 PM | Report abuse

I find the idea of 21 drinks on your birthday to be a little frightening due to the long-term damage to your liver that can result.

However, I take strong issue with the estimates at the BAL (blood alcohol level). BAL is determined by the number of drinks within a particular time period (e.g. often 1 hour). Roughly speaking, an average man metabolizes 1 drink/hour. So, if a man drinks 7 drinks over 7 hours, he will be no more intoxicated than a man who drinks one drink over 1 hour -- despite the commonly cited definition of 5 or 6 drinks as "binge-drinking."

I'm certainly not legitimizing 21 drinks on one's 21st birthday. Almost certainly, the person is FAR too intoxicated and is doing damage to their liver (even if they don't suffer any acute effects requiring a trip to the hospital). I am also disturbed by the number of women engaging in this, as women are generally of lower weights, leading to greater BALs for the same number of drinks as men AND women metabolize alcohol differently than men, leading to longer intoxication for the same number of drinks.

Posted by: Ryan | May 22, 2008 1:00 PM | Report abuse

The idiotic US law of a legal 21 drinking age is much at the root of alcohol abuse in younger adults and teenagers. Likewise those states that punish adults for teens drinking alcohol at the adults home are over reacting and simply driving teens to find cover for drinking. This leads to drunk driving.

To be sure countries where alcohol is sold to teenagers at 16 or 18 also have youth alcohol problems.

The US recruits soldiers at the age of 17 to enter service as a legal adult at 18 and thence off to war after basic training.

But you can't legally buy a beer until you're 21.

As to the 21 drink ritual which is very dangerous, much education is required.

Posted by: Alan Browne | May 22, 2008 1:03 PM | Report abuse

UVa supposedly has a ritual called the "Fourth-Year Fifth." When you're a fourth-year student (i.e., a senior), you're supposed to sneak a fifth of liquor in with you to a home football game, and drink the whole thing before game's end. Never knew of anyone who actually did it, though. I think some of these legends take on a life of their own.

Posted by: Tom T. | May 22, 2008 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Yet another reason the drinking age is moronic.

Posted by: drew | May 22, 2008 3:02 PM | Report abuse

This has been happening for AGES! My goodness. In the mid-90s I did 22 shots for my 21st (damn that person who handed me #22...). Of course I was 6'3 and 210 with a decent tolerance. My recollection of almost all my friends' 21st celebrations (esp. girls) was lots of build-up and them being sloppy and/or sick after single digits and being taken care of by celebrating friends. It was festive, people weren't shoving shots down your throat... I'm not condoning it, but I'm guessing you'd be more likely to end up hospitalized during a random night of binge drinking where noone is looking out for you, or through forced drinking/hazing, than on a night when your friends are (hopefully) looking out for you.

Posted by: Old News | May 22, 2008 3:23 PM | Report abuse

I work in an ER in a college town and we get some students brought in on occasion with elevated alcohol levels. Most are pretty sedated with a BAC of .300 mg/dl (milligrams per deciliter. The "legal limit" for driving is .08 mg/dl. The college would give out cards with a table showing weight and sex and estimated BAC levels for numbers of drinks consumed. It is obvious that smaller size and female sex equals higher BAC for same number of drinks consumed. I use it to approximate the amount of alcohol consumed in unresponsive patients. The degree of sedation per BAC can vary a lot depending on previous experience and exposure to alcohol. That is why I do not like to see kids exposed to these rituals who are not social drinkers.
Access to alcohol seems to be pretty easy in this town and I think the prohibition of young adults from all alcohol consumption is idiotic based on my experience growing up with parents who always had a two drink limit on themselves and deplored drunks. MADD and the federal government have divorced parents from their children in social situations for the most part so no training in social drinking can easily take place. This is a big mistake in my view. Nobody should drink and drive.

Posted by: erdoc | May 22, 2008 5:22 PM | Report abuse

Blah, blah, blah: once I drank so much that...

Blah, blah, blah: the youth of today are...

Blah, Blah, Blah...

While studies and posts like this one might be useful or interesting to newspaper readers, we all would benefit from turning off the comment sections for articles like this.

Hundreds of bogus "authority of experience" comments get us no where... and induce headaches like... well, like drinking a fifth of cheap gin over breakfast.

Ugh...

Posted by: MRK33 | May 22, 2008 5:28 PM | Report abuse

I did this ritual on my 21st birthday because all my friends had done it and it seemed fun. No one pressures girls to do this but I wanted to! I did it responsibly, however. None of my shots were straight alcohol. All were mixes with fruit juice and such. And secondly, I started at midnight on my birthday and continued the next night (still my birthday.) I didn't get sick and I had a fantastic time! My boyfriend, however, did this as well. His friends weren't so nice and he did get sick after doing 21 in one sitting. But he doesn't regret the evening either!

Posted by: Rachel | May 23, 2008 11:46 AM | Report abuse

All these moronic drinking games and the deaths they incur are just Darwinism at work.

Posted by: Phillyfilly | May 23, 2008 12:03 PM | Report abuse

Another "volume of drinking" game for turning 21 or shortly thereafter was attempting to join the "Centurian Club" - 100 shots of beer in 100 minutes. The shots were 1.5 oz to 2 oz shots. Each contestant drank a shot every minute, on the minute, until he reached 100 minutes. If you threw up before the 100 shots, you could not be considered a Centurian. Depending on the size of the shot, it is the equivalent of drinking between 12.5 and 16.6 12oz beers in an hour and forty minutes. Admittedly not very smart, and noone drove - but a fun way to waste away an afternoon as a young guy.

Posted by: rammy | May 23, 2008 2:36 PM | Report abuse

So, drink 21 drinks. Make them shots of beer. 21 shots would be about 42 oz, or about 4 beers. You could certainly make that into a ritual, and you would not kill yourself.

Posted by: POed Lib | May 24, 2008 4:49 PM | Report abuse

This is why things become a major problem before anyone notices. 21 for 21 has been around for a VERY long time...there is nothing new about it. There are probably many alcohol related deaths attributed to it and it's being reported as something "new."

Posted by: Jesse Barron | May 28, 2008 1:31 PM | Report abuse

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