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Research - Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) and Breathalyzer Studies

A small number of studies to date have used either an objective measure (usual breathalyzer samples) or an estimated blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to test the ability of the so-called 5/4* or "binge drinking" measure to identify high-risk drinkers. A number of studies using breathalyzer samples have found that the widely used 5/4 measure classifies many college students as "binge drinkers" even though their BAC levels are below the thresholds conventionally used to define drunkenness (Beirness et al., 2004; Foss et al., 2004; Lange and Voas, 2001; Thombs et al., 2002;). Another study examined the estimated blood alcohol levels reached by so-called "binge" and "nonbinge" drinkers (as defined by the 5/4 measure), finding that "a sizable percentage of young adults…who would be labeled as 'binge drinkers'…actually do not reach estimated maximum BAC levels that public health experts associate with impairment (Perkins et al., 2001, p. 319).

The findings from one of these studies has been an integral part of a social norms intervention at a large university which has resulted in reduced misperceptions of peer alcohol use as well as reductions in actual consumption (Foss, Marchetti, et al., 2000; Foss, 2004). The findings from another breathalyzer study are being used in a social norms project reportedly underway at Kent State University (Byard, 2003).

* The 5/4 measure: 5 or more drinks at an occasion for a male and 4 or more drinks at an occasion for a female.


Beirness, D.J., Foss, R.D., Vogel-Sprott, M. Drinking on Campus: Self-Reports and Breath Tests. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 65: 600-604, 2004.

Byard, K. College students magnify drinking: Breath tests at Kent State show exaggeration. Akron Beacon Journal. Monday, July 14, 2003.

Foss, R.L., Marchetti, L.J., and Holladay, K.A. Development and Evaluation of a Comprehensive Program to Reduce Drinking and Impaired Driving Among College Students: Final Report. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, October 2000.

Foss, R. et al. Social norms program reduces measured and self-reported drinking at UNC-CH [University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill]. The Report on Social Norms: Working Paper #14. Little Falls, NJ, PaperClip Communications, 2004.

Lange, J.E. and Voas, R.B. Defining Binge drinking quantities through resulting blood alcohol concentrations. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. 2001;15(4):310-316.

Perkins, H.W., DeJong, W. and Linkenbach, J. Estimated blood alcohol levels reached by "binge" and "nonbinge" drinkers: a survey of young adults in Montana. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. 2001;15(4):317-320.

Thombs, D.L., Olds, R.S., and Snyder, B.M. Field assessment of BAC data to study late-night college drinking. Journal of Studies on Alcohol. May 2003: 322-330.