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Rates of excessive drinking among student-athletes falling

An NCAA substance use study revealed fewer student-athletes are drinking heavily, but more are using prescription painkillers and ADHD medication.

Excessive drinking among student-athletes is falling and they are using social drugs at lower rates than their peers on campus, but now their use of prescription drugs is increasing, according to a new NCAA substance use study.

In 2013, the NCAA surveyed roughly 21,000 student-athletes regarding their substance use habits as part of an ongoing assessment conducted every four years. Eight years ago, 63 percent of male student-athletes reported drinking more than five drinks in a sitting. In 2013, though, that figure dropped to 44 percent. Female student-athletes reported a smaller, but still significant, decline in excessive drinking, with 33 percent reporting drinking four or more drinks, down from 41 percent. While excessive drinking is down, about 80 percent of student-athletes reported using alcohol within the past year, which is on par with the rate among the general collegiate population.

“I remain very concerned about this issue despite signs of a decrease in excessive alcohol usage,” said NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline. “All college students need to understand the considerable negative consequences associated with excessive drinking, which poses dangers from which they need to protect themselves and others.”

Compared to other male athletes, men’s basketball players reported either the lowest or second lowest usage rates of alcohol (71.6 percent), cigarettes (5.8 percent), cocaine (1 percent), marijuana (19 percent) and spit tobacco (8.8 percent). Men from all sports, however, reported using performance-enhancing and social substances at higher rates than women.

Hainline said he hopes ongoing work by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and pilot education programs by the NCAA Sport Science Institute will help shed more light on that survey data.

Still, NCAA athletes reported lower substance-use rates than the general student population, the data show. Student-athlete use of cigarettes, marijuana, amphetamines and cocaine were all lower than their counterparts reported in recent national studies by Southern Illinois University and the University of Michigan. Rates of alcohol and anabolic steroids use were comparable to those of non-athletes.

Division III student-athletes reported using social drugs like alcohol and marijuana at higher rates than the other divisions. When the data are filtered through specific sports, lacrosse student-athletes, both male and female, reported higher substance-use rates than their peers. More than 47 percent of male lacrosse players reported marijuana use, for instance, while no other sport eclipsed 33 percent.

Cigarette use has plummeted over time among women – only 6 percent reported smoking cigarettes after 16 percent did so in 2005. Among men, cigarette use remains low and steady – 13 percent in both 2005 and 2013 – but spit tobacco use has remained comparatively high. Twenty-four percent of male student-athletes reported spit-tobacco use in the last year, a drop of only 1 percent over the past eight years.

While the survey showed encouraging signs in the use of those substances, the rates of prescription drug use are on the rise.

Nearly a quarter of student-athletes reported using prescription pain medication in the past year. While the majority reported having a prescription, 6 percent indicated they took pain medication without one. Additionally, 16 percent of student-athletes reported using ADHD medication, more than half of whom obtained it without a prescription.

“I am particularly troubled by the high rates of prescription ADHD medication and prescription pain medication use,” Hainline said. “Such drug use has become a societal problem that has infiltrated college campuses. These surveys are extremely important because they take us inside what is happening on campus, and we come to understand that student-athletes are vulnerable to drug and alcohol use.”