Binge drinking among Jewish and non-Jewish college students

  • Americans who frequently attend religious services have lower rates of alcohol use and misuse.
  • The same relationship has not been found among Jewish Americans.
  • Heavy drinking and alcoholism, however, are less common among Jews than Christians.
  • Religious service attendance may have different meanings across groups, and may not accurately reflect religiosity among Jews.

In the United States, religious commitment, as measured by service attendance, has an inverse relationship with alcohol consumption and alcohol problems. In other words, individuals who frequently attend religious services tend to have lower rates of alcohol use and misuse. The same association has not, however, been consistently found among Jewish Americans. A study in the December issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research examines the relationship between religious variables and binge drinking among Jewish and non-Jewish college students. It also examines the association between binge drinking and genetic, cultural, and religious variables in the Jewish sample alone.

"Binge drinking is a growing focus in the alcohol research literature, especially among college students," said Susan E. Luczak, assistant project scientist in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego and first author of the study. "It has been related to many negative social, academic, and physical problems. Other measures of problems, such as abuse and dependence symptoms, are also important, but less prevalent in college samples."

Luczak added that even though researchers have traditionally found a strong association between "religious service attendance" and fewer alcohol problems among Christians, heavy drinking and alcoholism are less common among Jews. "There is something about being Jewish that seems to protect people from heavy drinking and drinking problems," she said. Perhaps this ‘protection’ is rooted in cultural differences, she noted, or perhaps ‘religious service attendance’ may have different meanings across religious groups.

Researchers examined two groups: 132 (68 female, 64 male) Jewish and 147 (72 female, 75 male) non-Jewish white college students. Participants reported their alcohol consumption for the previous 90 days and provided information about their religious affiliation and the number of religious services attended in the previous year. Study subjects also had blood drawn for genotyping at the alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH2) locus, one of several genes that encode the major enzymes involved in alcohol metabolism, and which has been associated with protection from alcoholism. Jewish study participants completed the Jewish Identity Scale, developed and published by researcher Itai Zak in Psychological Reports in 1973. The scale measures the degree to which being Jewish plays a part in one’s life, the importance of belonging to the Jewish community, and the closeness one feels to Jews in the world.

"This study has three key findings," said Luczak. "First, religious service attendance is associated with lower rates of binge drinking in non-Jewish college students, but not in Jewish college students. This is consistent with previous research. Second, being religiously Jewish, as compared with secularly Jewish, relates to lower rates of binge drinking, but Jewish cultural identification does not. Third, in the combined sample of Jewish and non-Jewish students, those who possessed the ADH2*2 genetic variation were approximately half as likely to binge drink as those who did not possess the variation."

Luczak said that, for the Jewish sample alone, these findings suggest that religious, and not just cultural, Jewish affiliation is related to lower levels of alcohol consumption. Although this may seem to contradict earlier findings of a weak relationship between religious commitment and lower rates of alcohol use and misuse among Jews, Stephen A. Maisto, professor and director of clinical training in the department of psychology at Syracuse University, believes that the answer may lie in the design of a fundamental measure – defining religious commitment by service attendance.

"Perhaps it would have been more useful to define types of services attended and their meaning to the participants, rather than just a count of the number of services attended," he said. The ‘religious affiliation’ variable, which summarizes a complex set of practices and beliefs regarding the Jewish religion, he noted, may have tapped into religious practices that affect overall life styles, including alcohol consumption. "Future research definitely needs to conduct more studies that can address the mechanisms underlying drinking pattern differences according to religious affiliation," he said. "The correlation between the two is established. The task now is to achieve a better empirical understanding of the association."

Luczak said the study’s genetic findings are related to previous reports that have found a relationship between ADH2*2 and less frequent drinking among Jews, and lower rates of alcohol dependence in Asians and non-Jewish whites. "However, the current study examined binge drinking, which is more related to drinking problems," she said, "and is a different measure than alcohol dependence. [However,] although these findings may not add to the literature on alcohol dependence, they do provide evidence that ADH2*2 also relates to a measure of heavy alcohol use in a combined sample of Jewish and non-Jewish whites."

Luczak and her colleagues will continue to examine drinking behavior, including measures of alcohol abuse and dependence symptoms, in Jewish and non-Jewish college students. "We are also examining the role of culture, religion, and genetic variations in these and other ethnic groups," she said, "including Koreans and Chinese."

Funding for this Addiction Science Made Easy project is provided by the Addiction Technology Transfer Center National Office, under the cooperative agreement from the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment of SAMHSA.

Articles were written based on the following published research:

Luczak, S.E., Shea, S.H., Carr, L.G., T.-K. Li, Wall, T.L. (December 2002 ). Binge drinking in Jewish and non-Jewish white college students. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 26 (12), 1773-1778.

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