The Midwest is the worst for binge drinking

A group of friends have a house party in Morrill, Minnesota, on a recent Thursday night.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

On a recent Thursday night, five friends, all in their early 20s, gather around a kitchen table. Two of the girls in the group live here. A couple of times a week this is their party house.

The friends say they'll talk about why they drink, admittedly often to excess, if we identify them by first names only.

Tonight they're partaking of a simple yet powerful concoction -- vodka and Diet Mountain Dew.

Drinking party
One of many voodoos consumed by the group on a recent Thursday night. It's a combination of vodka and diet Mountain Dew.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"Also known as a voodoo," says Robyn, 23, who lives here with Tracey, who's 22.

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And while they're all drinking now, Tracey says the real parties get going on Fridays.

"I'll call her before I'm home and see if she wants a bottle of vodka or whatever. We'll have a couple of drinks while we're getting ready, from their we'll either go to the bar or hang out here for a while," says Tracey. "A lot of the times we hang out at the bar all night, you have music and dancing and people there to talk to. It's just fun. We always have a good time."

Getting a handle on how much alcohol they consume is difficult, even for them. Often Tracey says she'll forget how much she's had to drink, because of how much she's had to drink.

"I like to have fun, and a lot of times I overdo it. I forget a lot of things when I drink and the next day I'll wake up and wonder why I did that," Tracey says. "Sometimes it sucks when people tell you things that you've done that you don't remember."

Party group
This group of young people gets together at least a couple nights each week to party. They admit they often drink to excess.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

The definition of binge drinking is four drinks for women and five drinks for men on any one occasion. If that's the case, these friends say they easily meet the binge drinking criteria a few times a week.

But they don't see what they do as dangerous. They claim they watch out for each other when they party and make sure everyone has a safe ride home.

They understand why some would see their behavior as shocking, but maintain it's their way to relax, socialize and unwind after a hard week at work.

Mike, who's 21, offers up another reason for why they drink.

"Especially in an area like this, it's all anybody does," says Mike. "It's the thing to do. It turns into a hobby for a lot of people, I think."

Researchers say that's exactly what they hear from young people all across the country.

Binge drinking compared
This map shows the rate of binge drinking in each state in 2006. The darker colors signify higher rates, and the states in the upper Midwest have the highest rates in the country.
Map courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

"And it becomes, in some way, a habit," says Jeff Ratliff-Crain, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota Morris. "They get to the point sometimes where it's hard to think of social things to do that don't involve drinking. That is what the social outlets are."

Ratliff-Crain says many young people see alcohol as an easily accessible cure for the small town doldrums. He sees it in his town of Benson, Minnesota, with a population of just over 3,000.

"We've got a one-screen movie theater. They show the same movie for an entire week," says Ratliff-Crain. "There's local sporting events at the school. Not much else. So parties end up becoming another outlet."

But does that attitude mean there's more binge drinking in states with large rural populations, like those in the Midwest? Some studies say yes.

In Minnesota, almost 51 percent of people age 18-24 in the state's metro areas admitted to binge drinking in a recent survey. But among their rural counterparts, that number jumps to 60 percent. That's according to figures from the 2005 Minnesota Survey of Adult Substance Abuse.

A favorite drink of this group is vodka mixed with diet Mountain Dew, also called a voodoo.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

It's a similar story in rural areas across the country.

Dave Hartley is with the Portland Maine-based Rural Health Research center. Hartley aggregated national data into a study last spring that compared binge drinking among rural and urban youth.

"There's a problem out there, and there's high use rates and higher binge drinking rates in rural than there are in urban areas," says Hartley.

Hartley's study shows 40 percent of 18-24 year olds in cities across the country report binge drinking. He says that's high, but not as high as the 48 percent of young people of the same age that report drinking in rural communities.

Hartley has also heard young people say the reason they binge drink is because of boredom, but he finds that hard to believe in many cases.

"This really needs more study, quite frankly, to see what's going on here," he says.

There are some who say that rural culture itself leads young people to drink more.

Steve Lanz supervisors drug and alcohol treatment for young people at Clara's House, a clinic in St. Cloud.

In his experience, Lanz cares for an equal number of young binge drinkers from both rural and urban areas. He's not sure about binge drinking, but he knows there are more young drinkers in rural areas.

Lanz theorizes that's partly due to greater acceptance of alcohol outside cities.

"You run into situations where you are more likely to have parents maybe bringing their kids into a bar in the rural area that you would in the city," says Lanz. "In the urban area that probably very rarely happens."

But at this point Lanz says communities, whether urban or rural, aren't doing enough to warn young people about the dangers of binge drinking.