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Spring Break: Hazardous To Your Health?

Some use the term "March madness" to describe not the college basketball tournament, but another college tradition, spring break. It's one obvious definition of the old joke, "Lead me not into temptation, I can find the way myself." Spring break should be known as the anti-Lent. Sex, alcohol, outrageous misbehavior - every indulgence is mandatory, and magnified live on MTV.

This year, the American Medical Association has provided a public service, doing a poll to underline the downside of what it calls "a dangerous binge-fest." It focused on the more vulnerable half of the population - college-age women - and the results are, well, sobering.

AMA president Dr. Edward Hill explained, "Scientific evidence shows women process alcohol differently putting them at greater risks for heart problems, reproductive disorders and liver disease. These survey results are extremely disturbing because it brings up an entirely new set of issues including increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases, blackouts and violence."

Their poll numbers should not surprise. In a poll of college women and graduates aged 17 to 35, 83 percent agreed that spring break trips involve more or heavier drinking than occurs on college campuses and 74 percent said spring break trips result in increased sexual activity. The poll is part of a campaign to reduce high-risk drinking on campus by the AMA and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, but I doubt it will have an impact.

One female student in Massachusetts described the prevalent attitude: "There's no mom, no dad, no boundaries. There's lots of young people and that herd mentality sets in, like 'Let's party.'" So the AMA also noted the risks. Each year in Cancun, Mexico, a major spring break destination, the city and hospitals report an increase in deaths, rapes, injuries, assaults and arrests related to drinking. In Daytona Beach, Florida, another popular spring break destination, last year county officials reported twice as many rape cases during the month of spring break. Yet parents continue to foot the air fare or hotel bills of spring break.

Women of college age travel to spring break to let loose, but want to blame something other than their own desires for the experience. In the AMA survey, a majority of women (74 percent) agreed women use drinking as an excuse for outrageous behavior. More than half of women (57 percent) agree being promiscuous is "a way to fit in." More than half (59 percent) know friends who were sexually active with more than one partner. Nearly three out of five women know friends who had "unprotected" sex during spring break, with a greater risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, not to mention the inevitable abortion. One in five respondents regretted the sexual activity they engaged in during spring break, and 12 percent felt forced or pressured into sex.

Then the survey looked at the role MTV and "Girls Gone Wild" videos play. An overwhelming majority (84 percent) of respondents thought images of college girls partying during spring break may contribute to an increase in females' reckless behavior. An even higher percentage (86 percent) agreed these images may contribute to dangerous behaviors by men toward women.

Which means nothing to MTV, whose website is again promoting its "hot" coverage of Spring Break 2006. It has a "spring break fantasies" video page. "The term 'in your wildest dreams' becomes a reality for many spring breakers...from human car washes to human burritos." In the car-wash scene, women in bikinis and high heels hose down a young man in swim trunks. In the "burrito" scene, a swim-suited couple have refried beans and guacamole and lettuce thrown on them and they get wrapped up in a big tortilla as the woman climbs on top of the man.

Spring break travel companies and alcohol companies are also responsible for driving up wild expectations. The AMA reported one spring break promoter's Web site for a trip to Cancun says, "your yearly intake of alcoholic consumption could happen in one small week." It advises college students to tell parents "it's an educational trip" and "don't worry about the water because you will be drinking beer." The women in the AMA poll agreed with proposals to tone the wildness down, for more regulation of tour advertising and less alcohol-promoting tour packages. But that's not really the root cause of spring break, and won't put much of a curb on the "party till you puke" vibe.

At least this year one counter-trend is heating up: an "alternative spring break" of community service trips, like building Habitat for Humanity houses for the poor. Even MTV made a public-relations move in that direction, promoting Storm Corps, which is helping rebuild areas still damaged by hurricane Katrina. But in no way can this offset the damage done by the "March Madness" tradition, or exculpate those encouraging it.