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Canadian study reveals major misperceptions about student drinking patterns

August 30, 2004
A press release issued by The Student Life Education Company, Toronto

The Student Life Education Company today released a groundbreaking Canadian study into post-secondary student drinking that shows a significant difference between actual and perceived behaviour in four primary areas.

The study findings will be used to develop targeted social norms marketing campaigns that provide students with an accurate picture of drinking behaviour and encourages them to drink responsibly.

Leading the study and present for the launch was Dr. Wesley Perkins, researcher with the Canadian Centre for Social Norms and Research, a branch of the Student Life Education Company.

First, the survey found that the majority of students (63%) drink twice per month or less. However, 80% of students believe that their peers typically drink once per week or more often. One-third believe that their fellow students drink at least three times per week.

Second, most students (64%) consume 1 to 4 drinks at parties or bars. The survey found that 67% believe students consume 5 or more drinks per occasion at parties or bars. One-quarter of students believe that average consumption is 7 or more drinks. These first two results indicate that most students overestimate both the quantity other students drink as well as the frequency
with which they drink.

Next, 93% of students stated that one should not drink to levels that interfere with academics or other responsibilities. In contrast, the survey found that 32% of students believe that the majority of their peers consider such behaviour acceptable.

Lastly, 80% of students reported that they always or usually have a designated driver when they know they will be travelling by car. The survey found that students believe only 59% of their peers always or usually used a designated driver. More then one-third of students believe that less than half of their peers used a designated driver with such regularity.

"By correcting misperceptions and demonstrating positive peer trends in student drinking patterns, our goal is to bring more students in line with the norms expressed by their peers, and ultimately, to eliminate unsafe drinking behaviour," said Dr. Perkins. "Similar social norm campaigns have led to significant reductions in student drinking at a number of colleges and
universities in the United States."

Promoting these findings in a fall marketing campaign is the first stage in an effort to educate students about drinking patterns and to ultimately lead them to make safer and more responsible choices about alcohol consumption.

"The Brewers of Canada are pleased to provide a one million dollar grant to the Student Life Education Company to carry out such an innovative student education program on responsible drinking. This initiative is a valuable contribution to a very important issue in Canadian society -- the health and safety of our young people -- and is an important plank in our industry's
effort to promote responsible drinking amongst Canadian youth," said Jeff Newton, President and CEO of the Brewers of Canada. "Canadian brewers view the promotion of responsible drinking not only as an important corporate social responsibility but also as a key business priority. Ensuring that people drink responsibly is integral to the future health and image of our business and this project is a meaningful investment against that objective."

To gauge the success of the marketing campaign, the Student Life Education Company will retest in October 2004. A second marketing campaign will follow in January, and another retest will occur in October 2005.

The study on student drinking patterns was conducted by the Canadian Centre for Social Norms Research. Over 5000 students from 10 colleges and universities in 7 provinces took part in the study. The survey was conducted in October 2003.

Social norms research is based on the premise that people's behaviour is influenced by the perception of how other members of their social group behave. Social norms theory dictates that when students misperceive the amount of alcohol consumed by their peers, they are at greater risk of increasing their own alcohol intake. Conversely, by promoting the truth about student drinking patterns, those students who do engage in unsafe or irresponsible drinking will see that their behaviour is outside the norm.

About The Student Life Education Company Inc.

The Student Life Education Company (SLEC) is a not-for-profit organization established in 1986. SLEC is dedicated to enhancing the quality of student life in Canada by working with students and schools nationwide to encourage healthy decision-making about alcohol use. The Student Life Education Centre is comprised of three divisions including BACCHUS Canada, Student Life NOW and The Canadian Centre for Social Norms Research.

About The Canadian Centre for Social Norms Research

The Canadian Centre for Social Norms was launched in 2001 with the aim of decreasing at-risk drinking behaviour on Canadian post-secondary campuses. The only centre of its kind in Canada, the Centre for Social Norms Research researches and develops targeted responsible-use education campaigns directed at students. The Centre is financially supported by an operating grant from the Brewers Association of Canada.

About the Brewers of Canada

The Brewers of Canada represent brewing companies operating in Canada. BOC members account for 98% of the jobs and economic activity in Canada's brewing sector. The Brewers of Canada promotes the interests of Canadian Brewers through the pro-active management of key regulatory, taxation, trade and social policy issues. Canadian brewers pride themselves on many things -- from brewing the best beer in the world to being a leader in educating consumers about responsible drinking. The Brewers of Canada, in operation since 1943, has offices in Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver.


What is social norms theory?

  • Social norms theory is based on a scientific, environmental model used in most developed countries
  • It states that much of people's behaviour is influenced by their perception of how other members of their social group behave.
  • It advocates communicating an accurate picture of peer behaviour, so that individual behaviour can be positively impacted

How does social norms theory apply to student drinking?

  • By studying campus drinking habits and providing students with accurate information, social norms theory contends that students will become aware of positive peer trends. This in turn will contribute to a reduction of unsafe or high-risk drinking behaviour

How is social norms research conducted?

  • Post-secondary students are surveyed about how much they are drinking and how much they think others are drinking
  • Surveys also ask about the consequences of alcohol consumption and collect information about student demographics

How is social norms data used?

  • Survey data is used as the basis for the development of educational campaigns directed towards its subjects (i.e. students)
  • The campaigns will inform students about actual patterns of behaviour and encourage safe and responsible consumption of alcohol

What Canadian schools are participating in the social norms research project?

  • Participating universities are the University of Toronto, Victoria College (Toronto, ON), Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, BC), University of Alberta (Edmonton, AB), University of New Brunswick (Fredericton, NB), University of Manitoba (Winnipeg, MB), University of Saskatchewan (Saskatoon, SK), and Saint Mary's University (Halifax, NS)
  • Participating colleges are Humber College (Toronto, ON), Lakeland College (Lloydminster, AB), Sault College (Sault Ste. Marie, ON)