The boozy orientation week, a rite of passage for many university students, could become a "prime target" for a crackdown on drinking at universities, says a researcher who found a link to higher than expected rates of drinking later in the year.

The findings of psychology researchers at Otago University suggest that males who were light drinkers before coming to university for their first year of study may be particularly susceptible to the potential "gateway effect" of drinking heavily during an orientation week.

They used text messaging to track the drinking behaviour of 143 young men and women at a residential college in their first year of study.

The students were asked just before orientation week how much they had drunk in a typical week during the previous 30 days. In orientation week they were sent a daily text message prompting them to report the number of drinks they had consumed the previous night.

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From April to October, the researchers sent a monthly text on a Sunday to assess alcohol use during the previous three days.

Dr Tamlin Conner and Dr Damian Scarf report in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs that they found high drinking rates during orientation week predicted increased rates of drinking during the academic year, especially for men.

" ...when we controlled for pre-university drinking, men who drank more during orientation week showed significantly higher rates of drinking during the academic year - more than what would be expected based on their pre-university drinking rates."

Those who drank at low rates before university but who drank heavily during orientation week were nearly equivalent in their academic year drinking to those who drank heavily both before and during orientation.

The pattern for women was the same, but not statistically significant possibly because of having only a small number of female participants. Dr Conner said more research was needed to confirm the link between between heavy drinking during orientation and later.

"If this is shown to be the case, orientation week may be a prime target for alcohol-based interventions in universities," she said.

In their paper, the authors wrote: "Students viewing orientation week as a 'one-off' event or a last blow-out before the real work begins should consider the impact their drinking may have on their academic year."