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Colleges Shift Emphasis on Drinking

October 3, 2000


In recent years, colleges have spent millions of dollars on scare tactics aimed at reducing binge drinking posters showing students covered with vomit, displays of cars wrecked by drunken drivers yet student drinking rates have remained unchanged.

Now, concluding those campaigns may have actually encouraged heavy drinking, colleges across the country are trying a new tactic: saying students don't drink so much, after all. To the surprise of many, the approach has produced marked declines in the number of students who say they drink heavily.

The premises of the new strategy are that binge drinking has been exaggerated and that, by harping on it, colleges have pushed students into thinking that heavy drinking fits the model of the American college student.

Under the new strategy, though, rather than scare students about the dangers of drink, the colleges are introducing campaigns that cite statistics indicating that, in fact, most students drink in moderation.

Proponents admit that the data is limited to a handful of campuses. But the declines at those colleges have been enough to prompt several hundred institutions, from Dartmouth and Cornell to the Universities of Washington and Arizona, to adopt the same tactic.

The federal department of education is paying for a more comprehensive study of the effects of the strategy. And last month, as colleges prepared for orientation traditionally the heaviest party season on campus an umbrella group of 21 national higher-education associations issued a statement asking its members and the news media to ban the phrase "binge drinking," calling it inaccurate and counterproductive.

The new campaigns have opened a bitter debate about the difference between heavy drinking and youthful experimentation. Those who first sounded the alarm about binge drinking dismiss the new campaigns as Pollyannaish and doubt statistics saying that students overestimate the amount they believe their peers drink. Marketing, they say, will only gloss over the problem.

Henry Wechsler, a Harvard researcher, first called attention to the problem of binge drinking on campus in 1993, when he concluded that 44 percent of students were binge drinking. Last month, he published a study disputing the basis of the new campaigns and said that the figure for binge drinkers on campus still held at 44 percent in 1999.

Richard P. Keeling, the editor of the Journal of American College Health, which published Dr. Wechsler's latest study, called the new strategy "a terribly hopeful approach in a field which is despairing of hope. But popularity is not proof of effectiveness."

Among other public health and college officials, though, the approach is winning converts.

"It seemed too good to be true," said William DeJong, director of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, a federally financed research center in Newton, Mass. But success on a variety of campuses, he said, "changed the way I've come to think."

"We have a number of schools that have been trying different things for a long time and nothing seems to change that much. Then they try this approach and wham! Within two years they see a 20 percent drop in reported drinking. That's worth paying attention to."

Devotees call the campaigns "social norms" marketing, and in the spirit of Madison Avenue, speak of moderation as a product, aiming to sell it to students in much the way The Gap sold Americans on wearing khakis: with sly but pervasive messages suggesting that everyone else is doing it, too.

"Zero to 3" read Frisbees handed out at Cornell, referring to the number of drinks most students drink when they party. "What's the norm?" asks one side of footballs at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., with the answer, "Four or Fewer," on the other. Posters blanket bulletin boards and student newspapers at these and other campuses proclaiming the facts flatly: 2 of 3 students do not drink on the big party nights; 55 percent of students consume fewer than five drinks when they drink.

The strategy was first suggested in 1986 by H. Wesley Perkins, a professor of sociology at Hobart, who noticed in surveys that students often overestimated how much their peers were drinking. The more they overestimated, he said, the more likely they were to drink heavily.

In the years since, several other studies have shown the same gap between perception and reality. One study of 48,000 students on 100 campuses nationwide found that at campuses where most students said they drank once a month, 90 percent presumed that their peers drank weekly or even daily.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, random Breathalyzer tests given to about 2,000 students in 1997 found that 66 percent had no alcohol in their blood when they returned to their dormitory rooms on the traditional big party nights of Thursday, Friday and Saturday, despite what even administrators acknowledged was a reputation as a "party school."

The myth of heavy drinking, the researchers say, takes root in college culture. Fraternities often assume the highest, or at least the loudest, profile on campus, even though in most cases, the majority of students do not belong to the Greek system. Campus chatter, too, revolves around tales of drunken evenings; as Professor Perkins asked, how often do college students sit around on Saturday morning and say "She was so sober last night"?

The headlines about binge drinking only reinforced that myth, the researchers say. Dr. Wechsler defined binge drinkers as women who consumed four drinks and men who drank five over an unspecified period of time at least once in the previous two weeks.

"It's like the game of telephone," said Professor Perkins. "Students think, `Ooh, 40 percent of people binge drink,' that becomes, `Ooh, most people binge drink,' that becomes, `Ooh, everybody binge drinks.' By talking about the problem, we're making it the norm."

Northern Illinois University was the first to try the strategy. In 1989, the university had tried a conventional campaign of scare tactics, inviting speakers to talk about the risks associated with alcohol abuse, and bringing a crashed car on campus. But the percentage of students who said they drank heavily actually rose slightly that year, to 45 percent from 43 percent the previous year, and students perceived that 69 percent of their peers drank heavily.

In 1990, the university changed to a social-norms model, with posters and advertisements featuring pictures of attractive couples under the headline "Most students drink five or fewer drinks when they party." Heavy drinking declined according to surveys of the students, to 37 percent.

Perceptions of heavy drinking declined, too, to 57 percent in 1990 and have continued to slide, to 33 percent in 1998.As perceptions did, heavy drinking did, too, to about 25 percent of all students in 1998. Negative consequences also declined: injuries to self dropped from 29 percent in 1989 to 15 percent, injuries to others, from 20 percent to 5 percent.

Other campuses adopting the same campaign posted similar results, prompting still more colleges to sign on.

"These are the best results that anything, short of a 24-hour lockdown, is going to produce," said Drew Hunter, the secretary of the task force on college drinking that opposes the term binge drinking. It includes the American Council on Education, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and 19 other higher education associations.

Initially, some college presidents said they worried about the approach because it seems to endorse moderate drinking, when most college students are under the legal drinking age of 21. But supporters say the campaign is value-neutral; it simply states the facts.

Researchers on alcohol abuse objected to Dr. Wechsler's use of the term binge drinking from the start, said G. Alan Marlatt, director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington. In traditional research, he said, a drinking binge is an uncontrollable, excessive episode that lasts several days, making the drinker unable to function normally at work or in relationships.

Others objected to the term because it did not define the period in which the drinks were consumed, or account for how much a student weighed or ate while drinking.

"It created more problems, or at least confusion," said Timothy C. Marchell, director of substance abuse services at Cornell.

To Dr. Wechsler, though, the semantic disputes divert attention from the real problem, which is that too high a percentage of students fall under his definition of binge drinking. "Getting rid of a word is not going to solve the situation with students appearing in emergency rooms or the noise and vomit and date rape and assaults and injuries," he said. "You can't define this out of existence."

Dr. Keeling, the editor of the journal of college health, said the studies produced on the social-norms approach, some appearing in his publication, only look at single campuses, so are not representative of American colleges, and should not be used to justify the same approach everywhere.

"We would love to publish the defining study that proves the value of this approach," Dr. Keeling said, "But we just haven't seen it."

For students, campaign has lightened the considerable pressure to drink, particularly among freshmen.

"Coming in, I was one of those borderline people," said Angela Richardson, 20, a junior at Hobart and William Smith. "I thought, `I want to socialize, but is everyone going to look at me if I don't drink?' This helps you realize you don't have to stand there with a drink in your hand."

She and other students on campus initially questioned where the numbers came from, and some still express skepticism about them. Still, even the skeptics say the students making noise as they come home drunk from bars are in the minority, a sign, college administrators say, that the campaign is working.

"We're all trying our hardest to be individuals," Ms. Richardson said. "But the truth is, we want to fit in. And just knowing you're in the majority makes you feel a heck of a lot better."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company