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Michigan Colleges Look to Curb Drinking

Monday, August 29, 2005
By Judy Putnam
Lansing Bureau, Booth Newspapers ( Everything Michigan)

As some 400,000 young adults pack up their stuff and head to Michigan's four-year college campuses, some of the worst advice about alcohol comes from their parents, a researcher at Michigan State University contends.

"I don't want you drinking like everyone else," is the wrong finger-wagging advice to give, according to Dennis Martell, MSU's health education coordinator.

That's because surveys show that when it comes to alcohol, students think everyone else is drinking more of it than they really are, Martell said.

Once they have a grasp on the true average behavior, through a "social norm" campaign, they will engage in less-risky behavior themselves, according to the social norm theory.

After a three-year study of its marketing campaign aimed at giving students an accurate picture of their peers' drinking habits, MSU says overall drinking is down, and high-risk drinking is down dramatically.

A national study in 2000 found that most students overestimate the number of drinks per week their peers consume, pegging it at nine when it was actually less than five.

Although some researchers, notably at Harvard University, dispute the effectiveness of the social norm campaigns, Grand Valley State University also reports that the strategy has helped drop the rate of binge drinking on its West Michigan campus.

The MSU campaign uses posters, student resident hall advisers and ads in the campus newspaper, to let students know if they don't drink, or don't drink excessively, they're not out of step with their peers.

"What you perceive is what is going to dictate what you do, especially if you're a freshman trying to fit in," Martell said.

Eventually, the theory goes, heavy drinkers will be viewed as those who don't fit in.

MSU has used a social norm campaign since 2000, after an MSU student died of alcohol poisoning on his 21st birthday in 1998 and the university suffered a tarnished reputation when a post-basketball tournament riot broke out in 1999.

Recent ads show young people shooting pool, attending a football game or playing basketball with such messages as "Most MSU students report drinking once a week or less."

In a survey of 1,073 MSU students in April, a majority of students reported they drank moderately, zero to four drinks, the last time they went to a party. That means 57 percent were considered moderate drinkers or abstainers compared with 48 percent in 2002.

When it comes to extreme drinking, the rate dropped to 18.8 percent of students this year, down from 28.2 percent in 2002, MSU's data show. Extreme drinking was defined as eight or more drinks at one sitting.

The average consumption was 3.4 drinks per setting, down from 4.2 drinks in 2002.

MSU's campaign also gives students information on protective behavior, such as alternating alcoholic drinks with nonalcoholic beverages and avoiding drinking games, which Martell says are particularly dangerous because they deliver a large amount of alcohol fast to inexperienced drinkers.

The social norm theory emphasizes the moderate drinkers and abstainers. In contrast, large-scale surveys by Harvard University between 1993 and 2001 drew widespread attention to heavy drinkers.

The Harvard studies reported that 44 percent of students binge drink, defined as five drinks for males and four drinks for females at a sitting.

But the surveys also found that there's a growing polarization of students on either end of the drinking spectrum, with one-fourth bingeing frequently—three or more times within two weeks—and one-fifth abstaining.

Martell disagrees with the definition of binge drinking because five drinks for a male could also fit the definition of a responsible drinker who spaces his consumption out over five hours, he said.

MSU has received $200,000 in U.S. Department of Education grants to study celebratory drinking and $300,000 in grants from the National Social Norms Resource Center based at Northern Illinois University, which helped pioneer the theory. The social norm grant to MSU is funded by the Anheuser-Busch Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Anheuser Busch, the world's largest brewery.

Henry Wechsler, director of the College Alcohol Studies Program at Harvard University, is a critic of industry-funded research. "The philosophy of social norms is appealing to the industry because it says things aren't as bad as you think," he said.

He also said social norms haven't been isolated as the reason drinking has dropped at some universities. "I'm not a fan of social norms because I haven't seen any scientifically valid studies showing that interventions of that nature change behavior," he said. "They may lower how students think others are drinking, but I haven't seen it lower drinking."

But Michael Haines, director of the National Social Norms Resource Center, in Dekalb, Ill., said social norms are effective because they appeal to what's right with students—such as most students disapprove of getting drunk—rather than scare and shame tactics, which he said is not effective with that population.

He said there's a strong correlation between drops in drinking at universities and their use of social norms, even if other strategies are employed at the same time.

Haines also defends the use of money from Anheuser-Busch Foundation. "That's a silly argument. If you were trying to prohibit car fatalities and you took money from GM would that taint you?" he said.

Nancy Harper, director of GVSU's Alcohol Education, Research and Training Laboratories, said her university shuns alcohol-industry funds. "We've never used any funding from the alcohol industry and we don't believe it's appropriate to do so. Their goals are definitely at odds with our goals," she said.

As students head to the Grand Valley campus in Allendale, they will see posters in dorms and classroom buildings promoting the campus as a place to study.

The social norm message is that "75 percent of Grand Valley students drink moderately or not at all," Harper said. The university also offers alcohol-free housing and alcohol-free social activities.

Harper said the rate of frequent binge drinkers, defined as five drinks for males or four for females within a two-hour period and three or more times a week, dropped from 9 percent of students to less than 4.5 percent over the past five years.

Grand Valley was been declared a national model for alcohol and drug abuse prevention by the U.S. Department of Education last year. It received more than $400,000 in federal grants since 2001.

Although Harper agrees with Harvard's Wechsler's view on alcohol industry funding, Harper is convinced social norm campaigns work. "To say social norms doesn't work is like saying hammers don't work well," she said. "Certain hammers don't work well in the hands of people who don't know how to use hammers."

The University of Michigan is beginning to implement a social norm campaign, and is eyeing MSU's program. In 2003, the binge rate was 52 percent, compared with the national rate of 44 percent, based on five drinks for men and four drinks for women at least once in the previous two weeks, said Patrice Flax, coordinator of the U-M Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention Program.

Frequent binge drinking—bingeing three or more times within two weeks—was 25 percent in 2003, compared with national rates of 23 percent in 2001. "Those are the students I'm concerned about," Flax said.

She said U-M has the attributes studies have shown promote drinking. It's a large school with a strong athletic program and an extensive Greek community. Flax said the theory at U-M is that social norms has to be part of a bigger approach that combines law enforcement and counseling among other strategies. Most agree.

Marie Hansen, campus liaison for the Michigan Prevention Network, a nonprofit, state-funded organization, said Grand Valley and MSU both have strong programs because they've received outside funding, and they offer a comprehensive approach that includes counseling, education and enforcement of drinking laws, including underage drinking.

Most other four-year public universities use a social norm marketing campaign in some form, even if it's just talking to students about misperception of drinking at orientation, she said.

Most in the field buy the theory, but few believe it is the "silver bullet," she said. "I believe that where it is a part of a comprehensive program, it really works," she said.

Mark Minelli, a Central Michigan University professor in the School of Health Sciences, said social norms were a prevailing theory in the 1990s, but research hasn't shown them effective as a sole strategy. He said strong law enforcement and policies, such as banning open containers in a city, also are needed.

"I don't think you should put all your eggs in any one basket," he said.