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from The San Bernardino Sun

Officials Fighting College Drinking

Peer pressure can be used to reinforce abstinence from alcohol among students, say behavioral researchers.

July 08, 2001

By Matt Bender

Cal State San Bernardino officials plan to unveil an unorthodox weapon in the fight against problem drinking peer pressure.

That may surprise those who remember the "Just Say No" campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s, which encouraged young people to actively resist peer pressure.

But researchers say many students would drink less if only they realized how responsible most of their peers are.

"What we're doing is taking advantage of, as it were, peer pressure and conformist tendencies in order to correct a problem behavior," said H. Wesley Perkins, a sociologist at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., who studies alcohol abuse.

Behind the approach is a body of research, dating back to the 1980s, that says most college students vastly overestimate how much other college students drink. In fact, Perkins said, most students abstain or drink only in moderation.

But because most students believe otherwise, they feel pressure to drink heavily. That reinforces behaviors that lead to drinking problems.

The social norms model originated by Perkins and New York psychologist Alan Berkowitz argues that simply telling students how responsible most of their peers are will lead them to drink less.

They say the approach has proved successful at universities around the country.

"We just give them accurate information about what the norms are and let that conformity behavior start working," Perkins said.

Howard Wang, Cal State San Bernardino's assistant vice president for student affairs, said he saw firsthand how powerful the social norms approach can be as an administrator at UCLA.

Wang, who is expected to head a task force to develop new strategies to deal with alcohol abuse, said he likes the approach's positive tone.

"It has proven more effective than just pointing fingers and saying, 'Thou shalt not drink,'" he said.

Cal Poly Pomona already has in place a nationally recognized program using the approach. It involves sending birthday cards to students on their 21st birthday.

The cards give statistics like "On the day Cal Poly Pomona students celebrated their 21st birthdays, 46 percent did not drink any alcoholic beverages," and offers tips on how to drink safely and help friends who have drunk too much.

"It's one of the best programs in the country," said Michael Haines, director of the National Social Norms Resource Center, a DeKalb, Ill.-based health promotion group.

The push at Cal State San Bernardino is part of a movement throughout the Cal State system to improve efforts to combat alcohol abuse. On Tuesday, the university system's Board of Trustees is expected to approve a report calling for new programs to deal with the problem.

The draft report makes general recommendations but does not prescribe how each campus should deal with alcohol abuse. Rather, it calls on each campus to devise an approach that fits its students' needs.

Cal State San Bernardino has avoided high-profile alcohol-related incidents of the kind that have marred the reputations of San Diego State, Cal State Chico and UC Santa Barbara in the last year. And administrators there say alcohol-related problems are relatively uncommon among the university's students, who are mostly commuters.

"A very high percentage of our students work," said Frank Rincn, Vice President for student affairs. "They're very busy with their working lives and their families, so partying isn't as much of a problem."

But Rincn said counselors at the university say problem drinking still takes a toll on students' health and academic success.

"They see it firsthand, with these people who are not able to control that part of their lives," he said.

Luis Portillo, president of the university's Associated Student Body, said the planned approach makes sense to him.

"When I first came to college, I thought everyone drank a lot. But it's not true," he said.

He said an emphasis on prevention, not enforcement, makes sense for Cal State San Bernardino. At best, enforcement policies can only affect what happens on campus, he said.

"But that's not where people are drinking. People are drinking off campus," he said.

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