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UMass Blarney Blowout raises concerns about ‘borg’ drinking fad

A beloved and beleaguered St. Patrick’s Day tradition at UMass Amherst has raised concerns about a popular drinking fad among college students involving a gallon water jug, which officials say contributed to dozens of hospitalizations and record ambulatory arrivals for a community hospital.

A beloved but controversial St. Patrick’s Day tradition at UMass Amherst called the Blarney Blowout has raised concerns about a popular drinking fad among college students involving a gallon water jug, which officials say contributed to nearly 50 people being sent to the hospital on Saturday.

The concoction called borg, which stands for blackout rage gallon, involves mixing a half gallon of water with vodka, a caffeinated flavor enhancer, and hydration packets.

“If you’re not borging, you’re not doing it right,” said Irene Christodoulou, a UMass student from Worcester who is a fan of the drink.

The concept has gone viral on TikTok and is presented as a way to avoid hangovers and hide the taste of alcohol. UMass students — who shared examples of borg names scripted on the outside of the containers, including “Borgman Freeman” and “Brown vs. the Borg of Education” — said they’ve also found that the drinks provide a loophole to open container laws because police won’t stop people carrying a gallon jug with the lid on, but they will stop someone carrying a beer.

It was the drink of choice for many at this year’s Blarney Blowout, an annual event that took place on March 4, attracting thousands of college students to outdoor gatherings and parties in Amherst.

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“A lot of people were falling over,” said Julie Dolan, 19, of Hanson. “Students were not safe.”

Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton reported a record number of ambulance arrivals on the day of this year’s event. A spokesperson for the hospital said 46 patients between the ages of 18 and 25 arrived from the celebration in 32 ambulances. The “patients transported were largely treated for a variety of alcohol-related issues,” the spokesperson said. None of the cases were life-threatening, and all who were treated were discharged without being admitted, the official said.

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“We’re very concerned about this and are acting quickly to address this,” said Brandi Hephner LaBanc, vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life at UMass Amherst.

LaBanc said her team entered the week leading up to Blarney feeling “very prepared,” with a game plan for mitigating risk related to the celebrations, which begin as early as 7 a.m. About a decade ago, the annual tradition, which occurs before St. Patrick’s Day because of how spring break falls, led to police clashes, riots, and dozens of arrests. This year, police arrested two people for underage possession of alcohol.

Preparations for Blarney include putting restrictions on campus guests, offering alternative events for students to attend, and coordinating with local police and fire officials, LaBanc said. She had seen reports of borgs in the media recently but said she was not aware of its use on campus before Saturday.

“What cropped up was this new, shocking trend of large-volume drinking,” LaBanc said in an interview. “It just created a really dangerous situation for the students, so we’re very concerned about that.”

LaBanc said some college students, who experienced record levels of mental health concerns and isolation during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, are still learning how to navigate new social interactions.

“We’re seeing our students struggling from a mental health perspective and they’re coping differently,” LaBanc said.

While the pandemic paused most large-scale parties, binge drinking on college campuses has not gone away, said George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. According to a 2021 survey on drug use and health, about 29 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 25 reported binge drinking in the month prior to being surveyed.

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“It’s an issue of not understanding alcohol,” Koob said in reaction to the aftermath of this year’s Blarney celebrations. “With this new trend of the borg, it really doesn’t matter how the alcohol is taken in, it’s the quantity that’s critical.”

Marc Barrette, 63, who moved to Amherst from Belchertown in October, lives near the university. He raised concerns about future celebrations due to the number of medical calls reported in Amherst that day, and the surrounding towns that had to send ambulances to assist.

If that happened again, he said, it could put people’s safety at risk. There should be more discussions between the town and local universities about how to prepare for future celebrations in Amherst, he said.

“I think that is a concern for a lot of people,” Barrette said. “Safety is No. 1.”

UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said that because Blarney is not a university-sanctioned event, UMass can’t cancel the celebrations or tell students to stop gathering.

“There’s an organic gathering of students, so it’s not something that we can schedule or unschedule, but it is something that we can work with students on so that they act and socialize the right way,” Blaguszewski said.

LaBanc said that university staff and administrators have begun meeting to brainstorm on how to combat disinformation circulating on TikTok related to borgs being “a harm reduction approach to drinking.”

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For example, John Paribello, a 21-year-old from New York state, claims that “if you get your electrolytes, you don’t get too drunk.”

“I think there’s this perception that you’re managing your own drink, and while that’s a good notion, what they’re missing is the piece that you have 10-15 shots [in a borg] that you’re carrying around with you all day,” LaBanc said.

UMass student Karina Rome, 20, said the widespread presence of borgs on TikTok has increased their popularity on campus.

“If it’s a trend [on TikTok], more people will want to do it,” Rome said.


Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns. John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.