Students warned over deadly booze and Ecstasy 'cocktails'

A national campaign in colleges is urging hard-drinking students to cut down, reports Cole Moreton

STUDENTS have always drunk too much. But the combination of "designer" drugs and drinks that look "soft" but pack a powerful alcoholic punch are causing new problems among Britain's undergraduates.

Warnings are being sent out to campuses across the country this week in a cartoon-style Big Blue Book of Booze published by the National Union of Students and the alcohol counselling service Drinkline. They have launched a national campaign to make students aware of the dangers of excess drinking which, they say, is responsible for much campus crime, casual unprotected sex and student poverty.

Student unions are the biggest bulk buyers of drink in the country, and young people aged 18 to 25 are its highest consumers. But if alcohol were invented today it would "almost certainly be as illegal as heroin", according to the new book, which complains that students are being given confusing messages. "Billions of pounds are spent telling us that alcohol is a good drug and that others [like cannabis, LSD, amphetamines and Ecstasy] are bad," it says.

"Brewing companies are constantly looking for new angles on selling high potency alcoholic drinks to young people. Those who don't like the taste of alcohol can get 'blasted away' or reduced to 'mad dogs' by drinking bubble-gum flavoured drinks with a very high alcohol content," says the book, with a reference to two new campus favourites: Blastaway, a mixture of wine and strong cider, and MD20/20 or "Mad Dog", which comes in sickly sweet flavours like Cherry Banana and has an alcohol content of 13.1 per cent.

Drinks like these and new "alcoholic lemonades" appeal to students who would be appalled by the macho beer drinking culture traditionally based around college rugby teams and sports clubs. "Even the women are trying to keep up," said Suzanne Blakey, who combines a PhD in Geology at the University of London with stints as a volunteer counsellor for Drinkline. "Students think they won't have anybody to talk to if they don't drink because everybody meets down the pub."

People can become dependent on drink without realising it, she said. "Exams come around, they haven't done the work, they can't catch up and they've no one to talk to, so they hit the bottle."

Drinkline has taken 30,000 calls in the last two years. Its spokeswoman, Anna McDermott, said: "A lot of young people aren't really exposed to alcohol until they get away from home. They get their own money, alcohol is more available to them than it's ever been, and it's part of the social scene." One student she knew of bought two cans of drink from the off- licence on the way to college each morning. At lunchtime she had a couple more drinks instead of a meal. When she rang Drinkline she was lonely and constantly tired. Her work was suffering, too.

According to Drinkline, 45 per cent of medium or heavy drinkers surveyed at university said they had sex with a person they would normally avoid (for non-drinkers, the figure was 17 per cent). Another survey showed that 20 per cent of male students said they had damaged property after drinking.

Ian Moss, vice-president of the NUS, said that the struggle to find money for food and rent prevented most students drinking too much. But some got into debt, became stressed by that and took to drinking as an easy way to forget their troubles. Instead it exacerbated them.

There was no evidence that students were drinking more per head than before, he said. The increase in alcohol consumption had coincided with a dramatic rise in the number of students - individuals might even be drinking less. But the availability of designer drugs like Ecstasy meant they were now more likely to choose from a menu of drink and drugs when they went out for the night.

The book warns that those who mix drink with drugs such as tranquillisers or heroin risk falling into a coma and choking on their own vomit.

Mixing drink with Ecstasy is "especially dangerous". "It's the heat that is the killer. Ecstasy makes you hot, clubs are hot, dancing for long periods makes you hot. Drinking water will cool you down, but drinking alcohol will dehydrate you, making you hotter still."

Tastes vary across the country. In the North, the cheapest beers are still the most popular, while in the South premium name brands have more appeal. "It's image driven," said Dave Sherlock, senior bar manager at Middlesex University. "They're drinking what they see in the media."

He said prices were kept down because student unions bought their supplies together. "We're cheaper than the pubs by a long way: a pint of Stella Artois is pounds 1.45 in here, but it will cost you pounds 1.95 in the pub just down the road," said Mr Sherlock.

Another manager said cocktails sold well at the older universities: "I hate to say it, but it's a class thing. I've seen a lot of people vomiting after too much sweet drink."

Durham University's student union bar manager, Malcolm Cummings, said the union bar was safer and more secure than pubs and clubs in town. "Our staff are trained to make sure that students are not subject to sexual or racial harassment."

Riotous drinking games like the "boat race" (where teams of drinkers compete against each other) were going out of fashion, but he often stepped in to stop other games "where they take it in turn to name a vile drink and the next poor sod has to drink it".

"Student unions have no interest in damaging the health or bank balances of our customers," said Mr Cummings. "We're not into screwing an extra pint out of people."

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