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Pre-drinking binges common worldwide

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TORONTO—Young people are engaging in a “new culture of intoxication” that even has its own buzz words—“pre-drinking” or “pre-gaming.”

If you’re a confused parent looking for a simple definition, just click on YouTube or on urbandictionary.com, where it’s described as the “act of drinking alcohol before you go out to the club to maximize your fun at the club while spending the least amount on extremely overpriced alcoholic beverages.”

This new form of binge drinking goes far beyond a warm-up to a night out with friends, says a new report by Centre for Addiction and Mental Health researcher Samantha Wells and two colleagues at the University of Toronto and University of Western Ontario.

It’s an “intense, ritualized, and unsupervised” drinkfest, in many cases perfectly-timed so that the booze hits the bloodstream within minutes of stepping inside the bar, Wells said in a telephone interview from London, Ont.

“Heavy drinking before going out has emerged as a common and celebrated practice among young adults around the world,” says the study, which was published online this week in the January issue of Addiction.

While the extent of this “extremely dangerous style of drinking” may be “central to the language” of many young people today, the report says the reasons behind it are age-old: To “enhance and extend” a fun night out, cut costs, and “reduce social anxiety or enhance male group bonding.”

But that’s not to say two can’t play at this game. Research has shown that women are more than capable of keeping up with the guys, said Wells, which makes their behaviour even more dangerous given the speed at which the alcohol is entering their relatively smaller bodies.

The report suggests that well-intended efforts, such as wiping out cheap-drink happy hours at bars, may have contributed inadvertently to this drive to drink beforehand, largely among people 18-25, in some cases to the point where they pass out before leaving the house, Wells said.

These private parties remove a safety net of sorts, given that bar staff and bouncers generally are well-trained to spot, and stop serving, those who already have had too much, the researcher noted.

Another contributing factor is the “huge gap” between the cost of booze at liquor stores and in bars, noted Wells. It might be time for a debate on whether the two need to be more in line despite the obvious economic problem that would pose for bar owners, especially in already tough economic times, she conceded.

Bouncers already are proving to be a first line of defence, said one bar manager.

“I don’t think there’s a bar in the city where, on a Friday and Saturday night, people aren’t drinking at home before they go out,” said Jim McCardle, manager of The Madison Avenue Pub in Toronto.

“If it’s excessive drinking, it’s always caught at the door because you can smell it on people when they’re coming in,” he noted. “There’s the occasional one that might slip by, but I wouldn’t consider it a serious problem.”

Wells said studies have shown that pre-drinking is quite common in the U.K., where 55 percent of men and 60 percent of women acknowledged pre-drinking that in some cases can be so severe it leads to injuries, accidents, and brawls.

The numbers are about the same in the United States, she added.

Florence Kellner, a senior researcher at the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, has studied drinking among undergrads in Ottawa and said there’s no reason to think the problem is any less severe in Canada.

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