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21 for 21 Birthday Drinking Game: More Common Than Parents Realize

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Birthday parties sound innocent enough, but a drinking game played by college students as they reach the legal drinking age is having deadly consequences, and the ritual of playing “21 for 21” is one of the reasons. Young people will attempt to take 21 shots of liquor or drink 21 mixed drinks in a short period of time to celebrate their 21st birthday. This “game” has become increasingly common and the consequences are worse than people may imagine.

Thanks to YouTube, Facebook, and other websites, photos and videos of 21st birthday events – including the 21 for 21 game — are posted for all to see, and young people assume that getting incredibly drunk once they reach their milestone birthday is simply a rite of passage.

I’ll definitely admit that most of my friends went out to celebrate their birthdays during college and so did I. Research has estimated that nearly 4 out of 5 Americans drink alcohol on their 21st birthday. It sounds innocent enough, but a 2008 study lead by Patricia Rutledge of the University of Missouri has uncovered some disturbing information.

The students involved in the University of Missouri study were followed throughout their four years of college and asked a variety of questions about their drinking habits. Of the 2,518 students involved, 34% of men and 24% of women admitted to consuming 21 or more drinks on their 21st birthday.

The study was discussed in detail in a 2008 New York Times piece by Tara Parker-Pope available on the Today Show’s website , and results have shown that such extreme binge drinking is more common than people may think: one of the study’s authors, Kenneth Sher, professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia, explained, “I think a lot of people view this as a feel-good rite of passage and don’t calibrate what a big risk it is.”

While it’s true that this study was performed using students at one school, it’s probably safe to say that that similar results would be found at most universities, particularly those with popular athletic teams and those known informally as “party schools.”

An Examiner.net article reported that Sugar Creek, Missouri resident Alberto Lima Betancourt died from severe alcohol poisoning on April 8, 2010. His blood alcohol limit was more than six times the legal limit, and hospital reports notified the police department of the high figure. According to Sugar Creek Detective Virginia DeBoard, Betancourt took a “21-shot challenge” to celebrate his birthday the night before. “It’s becoming more prominent, especially on college campuses,” she said.

There are plenty of similar sad stories available in the media. Wisconsin college student Jesse Drews, also died of alcohol poisoning on March 24, 2008 – his 21st birthday. His parents have been told different numbers by friends that were with him at the time, but it’s believed that Drews did not consume 21 drinks on his 21st. Even so, his blood alcohol level was 0.38 and it’s believed that his respiratory system slowed down enough to cause his death.

Blood Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is a serious – and often deadly – problem that happens when someone consumes so many drinks in such a short period of time, their body cannot process the alcohol. The Mayo Clinic explains that alcohol poisoning can affect breathing, heart rate, and gag reflex, potentially leading to coma and death.

If you’re out drinking for a friend’s 21st birthday — or any other time that drinking is involved — it’s imperative to have a designated driver that can keep an eye out for potential signs of alcohol poisoning. The following list, also provided from the Mayo Clinic, explains what to look out for:

  • Confusion, stupor
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing (less than eight breaths a minute)
  • Irregular breathing
  • Blue-tinged skin or pale skin
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Unconsciousness (“passing out”)

If you think that someone may have alcohol poisoning, don’t hesitate to call 911. It’s better to have a “false alarm” than take no action. Don’t leave an unconscious person alone if you assume that they’ve passed out from being drunk, because the consequences may be worse than you think.

It seems that most people assume “it’ll never happen to me!” but all too often it does. As a matter of fact, a few months ago, my mom told me that one of my distant relatives had passed away after choking on his own vomit in his dorm room.

Be Responsible About Drinking

Some college students are realizing that binge drinking has dangerous consequences.

B.R.A.D. — Be Responsible About Drinking — is a non-profit Michigan organization that was formed by the friends and families of Bradley McCue, a Michigan State University Junior who died of alcohol poisoning after celebrating his 21st birthday. Brad drank 24 shots of liquor in about 1 ½ hours and died of alcohol poisoning after friends put him to bed as he passed out.

B.R.A.D. has impressive educational information available to high school and college students, such as a birthday card you can send to friends approaching their 21st birthday. The card from B.R.A.D. tells Bradley’s story and provides information about alcohol poisoning and responsible drinking. You can request a card and learn more about B.R.A.D.’s educational programs on the B.R.A.D. website.

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Examiner article

New York Times article


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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spencer almost 4 years ago spencer

My friend has had alcohol poisoning before. This is a really eye-opening article. Thank you for the information! My friend is turning 21 soon. I will make sure to tell them about this. Spencer | http://www.starkelawoffices.com/Services/