The first few weekends of the new school year find college students flocking to bars, house parties or any place that serves cold beer and cheap booze.
But those alcohol-fueled nights are ending with many a student lying drunk in a hospital bed.
Since the start of the fall semester, 32 students at the area's largest four-year colleges have been taken to a hospital for evaluation and treatment because of intoxication.
Fourteen of those students attend the University at Buffalo, which has the largest undergraduate enrollment in the area. Seven were treated just this past weekend.
"It's an unfortunate, start-of-school-year rite of passage," said Dennis R. Black, UB's vice president for student affairs.
Drinking to excess is not a new problem, for UB or any other college, and school officials say the rate of hospitalizations, while always a concern, is not unusually high this year.
Problem drinking persists despite years of increased police enforcement, warnings during freshman orientation and educational campaigns that detail the consequences of this risky behavior.
It may seem an unwinnable fight, but school officials say they continue to try new approaches, with some success, to convince students to make better choices about alcohol.
"It's still a problem, and some semesters are better than others, but it's always an issue," said Cary Anderson, dean of students at Canisius College.
Binge drinking by college students is a national problem, and the results can be deadly.
About 1,700 American college students die each year in alcohol-related incidents, according to a report this year from researchers at Boston University and Harvard University, based on 2001 data.
Most of the drinking is being done by a minority of students.
About four out of 10 students binge drink, which is defined as at least five drinks in a row for men and at least four drinks for women, according to research collected by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's Task Force on College Drinking.
Twenty percent of students said they binged more than three times in the last two weeks, and these persistent binge drinkers account for nearly 70 percent of all the alcohol used by students, the task force reported.
Those students started drinking well before they got to campus.
At UB, 71 percent of female freshmen who arrived on campus in fall 2004 reported they had had a drink in the year before they started college, said Kathleen A. Parks, a senior research scientist at UB's Research Institute on Addictions.
"It's not just a college problem. . . . Kids in high school are definitely drinking," said Parks, who is following those students for a federally funded, four-year study of the relationship between drinking and risky or dangerous behavior.
But there's something about the college environment that seems to bring out the worst in student drinking habits, particularly at the start of each fall.
"It's a perennial problem," said Joan L. McCool, director of the counseling center at Buffalo State College.
> Freshmen susceptible
For many freshmen, it's their first time living away from home, and they want to savor their newfound freedom. For every student, late August and September is a time in the school calendar when the homework load is light and exams are still far in the future.
Students are drawn to wild house parties, where a $5 cover charge buys a bottomless plastic cup of beer, and to crowded bars that advertise drink specials in fliers posted on campus.
In interviews, UB students said alcohol is part of college life, and it's particularly appealing to the youngest students.
"It's that forbidden fruit," said Steffanie Kozlowski, 22, a senior transfer student who commutes from Cheektowaga and said she rarely drinks.
Most students don't view drinking as a horrible thing.
"It's just a good way to relieve stress on the weekends," said Annie Bishop, a 19-year-old sophomore from Vestal who lives on campus and said she drinks fairly regularly.
A small number of those who do drink take it too far. At UB, which has 18,165 undergraduates, the 14 students taken to area hospitals for evaluation or treatment of intoxication is not an unusually high number for the start of the school year, Black said. Last year, for the entire fall semester, UB had 21 such incidents, he said.
This year's total includes seven taken last weekend from both the North and South campuses to Erie County Medical Center or Buffalo General Hospital.
"It rolls back on campus from off-campus activities," Black said, as students drink at bars or parties and return to their rooms at the end of the night.
In each case, a friend or roommate called campus police for help, something that the university encourages students to do, said John M. Grela, UB's director of public safety.
UB police perform a basic assessment and then call for an ambulance to take the student to a hospital for further care.
The students who make their way to ECMC often can have a blood alcohol level of 0.30 percent or 0.40 percent, where 0.08 is considered legally intoxicated in New York State, said Dr. Robert B. Whitney, director of the division of chemical dependency at ECMC. That would require the typical male to consume 15 or 20 drinks over a couple of hours, he said.
"It clearly is risky drinking," Whitney said.
> Treatment a priority
Schools say they rely on a mix of police enforcement, alternative programming and education to wean students off alcohol.
UB, like other schools, is more concerned with getting treatment for a student who overdoses on alcohol or who is under 21 and caught with a beer for the first time.
Punishment, which can include suspension or expulsion, is reserved for repeat offenders or for students who provide alcohol to a minor or to anyone who was already drunk, Black said.
The alternative programming is a response to the common student refrain that they drink because there's nothing else to do.
Canisius College, for example, offers non-alcoholic, campus-based entertainment for students on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, such as showing a movie or bringing in a musician.
But the biggest piece is education, which starts at freshman orientation but is reinforced in later years.
Niagara University requires every freshman to take a course for the first half of the fall semester that focuses heavily on alcohol and drug abuse, said Joe Cuda, dean of student affairs.
The Internet is a growing part of this effort. The Web site for Buffalo State's Counseling Center has a page titled "e-Chug," on which students can report how much they drink and receive a confidential assessment of their alcohol consumption.
School administrators acknowledge that students won't respond to the message if it comes out as a simplistic "Just Say No to Alcohol" doctrine.
"No one's going to listen to someone preach about how you shouldn't drink. You've got to make that choice for yourself," said Larry Militello, 20, a UB junior from Amherst who lives in an off-campus apartment and said he drinks three or four nights a week.
Colleges also try to enlist parents in the effort, with most notifying parents whenever a student is hospitalized for an alcohol overdose or is cited for an alcohol violation.
School officials see some signs of progress. A survey UB conducted of its students found that, of students who do drink, 68 percent of women and 60 percent of men do so once a week or less.
> Experience scares some
Niagara University has had just one student taken to a hospital for intoxication since the start of the school year, when the typical number is one each weekend through September, Cuda said.
Also, this fall NU has had 30 students cited for alcohol-related incidents, where last year through the end of September they had 70 such incidents, Cuda said.
Cuda and the other officials can't be sure exactly what is working in their perennial battle to curb excessive drinking. For some students, it comes down to being scared straight.
Brandon Hanno, a 17-year-old UB freshman from West Seneca, said he was still in high school when he got so drunk at a party that he passed out. His friends called his parents, who had to come and get him.
Hanno said his parents were disappointed in him, and he didn't like how violently ill he became after waking up. Today, he said he still drinks, but never to an extreme. "That isn't something I want to keep doing," he said.