ritual, 21 shots on 21st birthday, presents dangers --
even in Utah
By Amanda Mears
May 8, 2008 | For many college students, drinking
is a rite of passage and a common sight at 21st birthday
However, for Karen Johnson, a junior majoring in graphic
design, it turned into something much more dangerous.
Johnson, who asked that her real name not be used
to protect her identity, was celebrating a friend's
21st birthday when she noticed he was unresponsive and
"He got really, really sick, like the sickest I have
seen someone," Johnson said. "It was scary. We called
911, but some of us were underage so we ran."
The night didn't end there for 20-year-old Johnson,
who said she later got a phone call from a friend who
had been put in jail and needed to be bailed out.
"I had to go round up enough money to bail him out
and the whole time I was stressed about our friend who
had to go to the hospital," Johnson said. "It was probably
the worst night of my life."
Johnson said she later heard that her friend was attempting
to take 21 shots that night in honor of his birthday.
"I've heard about people doing it, but I didn't think
he would be so stupid," Johnson said, referring to the
drinking ritual that is gaining notoriety amongst college
One look at the popular networking site Facebook reveals
exactly how prevalent the game is becoming on college
campuses. Photo albums put up daily feature freshly-21
girls taking their first shot at 8:31 a.m. and not stopping
until late that evening. Others display smiling boys
pounding drink after drink until the final picture of
them, red-eyed and sick looking, flashes in progression.
With titles like "21 for my 21st!!!!!!!!!!!" and "So
Drunk I Almost Died", these pictures downplay the seriousness
of students taking binge drinking to a whole new level.
Web sites like YouTube and MySpace are also popularizing
the drinking ritual by hosting dozens of videos that
feature drunken students attempting to consume 21 drinks
in an hour. A quick search for "21 shots" returns over
3,200 hits, a tribute to the rising trend that could
prove to be much more dangerous than just binge drinking.
In an article for the New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope
tells the story of 21-year-old Jesse Drews who passed
away on his birthday due to binge drinking. Although
reports of how much alcohol Drews consumed vary, friends
say he was most likely attempting to take 21 shots.
At the time of his death, Drews was unresponsive and
a hospital test showed a blood alcohol level of 0.38.
Although Drews story is tragic, research shows that
the circumstance is not an unlikely one. According to
one study done at the University of Missouri-Columbia
that was published in The Journal of Consulting
and Clinical Psychology, 34 percent of the men
and 24 percent of the women who are in college and drank
alcohol to celebrate their 21st birthdays reported consuming
21 or more drinks in the span of one night.
Johnson said that even though some of her friends
choose to space out the 21 shots throughout the day,
she noted that others try to fit as many in as possible
on the night of their birthday.
"It's stupid," Johnson said, "but I'm still going
to drink on my 21st birthday. I just don't want to get
so drunk that people have to take care of me."
Although Johnson said she would not be doing 21 shots
on her upcoming birthday, she admits that she is worried
about going overboard and ending up in a risky situation.
"I tell myself I won't drink that much, but it's hard
to remember that when you get caught up in partying,"
After watching her friends participate in dangerous
behavior, Johnson said she is more likely to be conscious
about how much she drinks.
"It's scary to watch people in danger of alcohol poisoning
and I don't ever want that to be me," Johnson said.
According to Parker-Pope, alcohol poisoning is one
of the biggest worries about the ritual of "21 on 21".
She writes that the body's ability to metabolize alcohol
depends on several factors, including gender, weight,
the type of alcohol, whether the person vomits during
the binge and the time period during which the drinks
are consumed. But in some cases, as few as 10 drinks
can cause blood- alcohol levels to reach 0.30, at which
point the respiratory system slows so much that death
is a very real possibility.
Clayton Neighbors, associate professor of psychiatry
and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington
Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors in
Seattle, created a study similar to the study conducted
at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
"We asked everyone who was turning 21 to be in the
study, and incorporated a web-based feedback program
in which the students log on and we ask them questions
relating to their 21st birthday," Neighbors said. "We
show them that it's not as common as they think it is."
Neighbors said he sent the questionnaire out a few
days before the students' 21st birthdays and randomly
provided additional information to some of the participants
who were more likely to drink. The information included
drinking statistics and info on the dangers of excessive
What he found was that the students who received feedback
were more likely to have a change or difference in opinion
about binge drinking on their 21st birthdays. "We gave
them info on how much people actually drink, and found
that it's not as much as they think they do," he said.
"We're not trying to get students not to drink, but
to just be safe."
Neighbors said one of the goals of the study is to
try and stop students from drinking too much on their
21st birthdays since it can lead to severe consequences.
In an article for the University of Delaware Review,
Neighbors said when he started the study he saw a young
man end up in a coma on his 21st. That very same week,
a woman ended up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning.
"Students don't realize that a certain amount of alcohol
can kill you. A lot of what we're trying to do is educate
them about blood alcohol concentration, and it worked,"
Torri Sant, a senior at USU, said she has seen plenty
of her friends celebrate by drinking but has not witnessed
anyone participating in the ritual of taking 21 shots
on their 21st birthday.
With the drinking ritual on the rise, however, she
agrees that it is probably not long before it hits campus
in a big way.
In order to have a safe 21st birthday celebration,
students should watch how many drinks they consume and
even do a little bit of research to find out how much
alcohol they can safely and legally have.
Charts such as the one found at http://www.brad21.com,
measure how many drinks it takes for someone of a certain
weight to reach the legal limit. For example, it takes
a 120-pound woman only 10 drinks to reach a dangerous
0.38 blood alcohol level and the same number of drinks
to incapacitate a 140-pound man and result in a 0.27
blood alcohol level.
The site was founded in honor of Bradley McCue, a
Michigan State University junior who died of alcohol
poisoning after celebrating his 21st birthday, and is
just one more reason for students to watch how much
they are drinking.