That infamous 21st birthday tradition is not worth the toll it can take on your health.
Much anticipated and sometimes barely remembered, 21st birthdays are infamous on college campuses.
Commonly known as a time to disregard responsible guidelines, this birthday is sometimes treated as an excuse for students to go crazy for a night filled with keg stands, shots and that first — and second and third — legal cocktail.
For some, a night of birthday debauchery ends with a severe hangover and embarrassing pictures. But for Mason Sumnicht, the night ended tragically, in the emergency room.
Chico State University student Sumnicht was found unresponsive in a college apartment on Nov. 4 after celebrating his 21st birthday with his friends. This week his family decided to take him off life support as he his suffering “severe, permanent brain damage,” friend Joanna Fritz said in a Chico Enterprise Record interview.
Turning 21 is a milestone legally and mentally, but the human body’s ability to digest alcohol does not change overnight.
According to a WebMD study, about 80% of people drink to celebrate turning 21, and about half of these birthday drinkers surpassed their previous consumption maximum.
The study reported that many of them had a common goal: 21 drinks, one for every year of life.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, binge drinking, the point at which a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reaches 0.08, typically occurs when men consume five or more drinks and when women consume four or more drinks in about two hours — limits that wildly understate how much students actually consume on these birthdays.
University of Florida junior Jennifer McMann recalls her 21st birthday earlier this semester as one of the best nights of her life.
“It was like my wedding,” McMann joked. “All my friends came over to my apartment. I wore a bright red dress, and they all wore black. Everyone was really excited. It was my night.”
Like most of her friends on their 21st birthdays, McMann was given a personalized 21st birthday sign to wear, a tradition practiced by many women at UF.
Signs are decorated to depict something the birthday woman loves on the front and 21 funny tasks on the back, usually ending with “live to see 22.”
As she worked toward completing the tasks her friends chose for her, McMann remembers getting continuously drunker, and then, nothing.
“I remember the beginning with all my friends. Then we went to a fraternity party, and then I probably should’ve gone home, but I wanted to go to the bar and use my ID because I’m 21,” McMann said. “So I remember doing that, and then I don’t remember being at the bar.”
“My friends were egging me on, but I definitely wasn’t going to say no. I was ready, I had been waiting to turn 21 for, like, 5 years,” she added.
McMann may occasionally go out with her friends, but she’s not naïve about alcohol.
“I don’t think it’s safe because literally everyone binge drinks on their birthday night, but I think by that point in your life, you can handle it,” she reasoned.
Twenty-first birthday traditions are no secret to the campus wellness centers, bars and hospitals in college towns. Universities are trying to combat the celebratory binge drinking ritual, or at the very least, inform students of its danger.
In 2010, State College, Pa., bars stopped serving straight liquor shots to its 21st birthday customers as part of the Penn State community’s effort to lower heavy drinking rates.
Harvard sends an electronic birthday card with access to a “21 things to do at Harvard before you graduate” list that encourages students to partake responsibly.
The University of Florida sends students a coupon for free Cold Stone ice cream and a movie, redeemable only on the student’s 21st birthday. Most students, like McMann, don’t use it.
Although a responsible effort from schools, these institutions cannot stop a 21-year-old from going out and buying a few drinks.
Susan Hochman, assistant director of University Health Services at The University of Texas at Austin, recognizes that.
Many schools send a birthday message to students on their 21st birthday, but a UT e-card includes student-submitted videos of celebrations without alcohol, Hochman said.
UT’s University Health Center’s 21st birthday acknowledgement is part of a campaign called “Know Your Line,” which works toward educating students so that they recognize the difference between drinking and getting drunk.
“We know that a 21st birthday is one of those times when students engage in what we consider to be heavy episodic drinking,” Hochman said. “We still want students to have a great birthday, but we want them to do so in a way that’s going to minimize their risk.”
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