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Home > Research Articles > College Study Faults Anti-Alcohol Program

The Washington Post

Friday, July 25, 2003

The Washington Post - July 24, 2003

An approach to alcohol awareness used by many of the nation's colleges has largely failed in its efforts to curb students' consumption by emphasizing that heavy drinking is not normal, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study released yesterday.

The research, to be published this month in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, found no decrease in student drinking on campuses that used the method -- a cornerstone of some programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education -- compared with those that did not. In fact, student drinking actually increased in two ways, the study said. "These programs . . . were long on promise but short on proof," said Henry Weschler, director of the College Alcohol Study at Harvard and the lead researcher.

The study highlights the difficulties colleges face in their efforts to reduce drinking in light of a disturbing number of alcohol-related deaths. Last year in the Washington area, a University of Maryland student died of acute alcohol intoxication after a fraternity bid party. In 2000, a Georgetown University student died after hitting his head on the curb outside a bar during an alcohol-fueled brawl.

Those and similar deaths across the country were the result of what Weschler calls "binge drinking," defined as five or more alcoholic beverages in a row for a man and four or more for a woman. A report released last year by the College Alcohol Study found that 44 percent of students binge drink, and colleges have spent millions of dollars targeting the problem.

One popular method involves advertising "socially normal" behavior, such as drinking one bottle of beer rather than the whole case. College students believe that their peers consume more alcohol than they actually do, some researchers have found. The social norms method uses posters and fliers, with follow-ups such as leadership training and campus newspaper articles, to ease perceived peer pressure and expectations.

The Harvard study released yesterday found that 48 percent of the country's four-year colleges use social norms methods in their campaigns to reduce student drinking. At the University of Virginia, a flier with alcohol-related information was posted in every freshman bathroom; the school also trains dorm advisers in social norms methods and began a campus-wide media blitz against heavy drinking, thanks in part to a $400,000 grant from Anheuser-Busch.

"It's challenging [students'] perceptions of what's going on in the university," said Susan Bruce, director of U-Va.'s Center for Alcohol and Substance Education. "We feel like it's making a difference."

But while individual schools may feel as though they are making progress, the Harvard study concluded that, overall, the programs have had negligible impact.

The study examined survey results of the drinking habits of a random sample of students, taken during three different years at 37 colleges that used social norms campaigns and 61 colleges that did not. About 35,000 students responded to each survey. The study controlled for changes in student demographics, and the results are broken down according to the intensity and duration of individual schools' campaigns.

The only significant changes were increases at campuses that used the social norms method, both in the percentage of students who reported consuming alcohol in the past month and in those who reported having 20 or more drinks in a month, Weschler said.

Weschler has long been a critic of social norms campaigns. That has made some researchers wary of the Harvard study, which they say is flawed. "His bias against social norms marketing is really very well known, and I don't think he's prepared to give it a fair test," said William DeJong, director of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and other Drug Prevention, which helps colleges develop social norm campaigns.

DeJong said Weschler's study failed to determine the quality of each school's campaign. It also did not account for outside factors that may have influenced student drinking, such as changes in school policies.

Alan Berkowitz, a consultant who helped develop the theory behind social norms campaigns, defended its use in colleges to curb drinking. "No one is saying that social norms will solve every problem," he said "but that doesn't mean it's not a valid approach."

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