Shift Emphasis on Drinking
October 3, 2000
By KATE ZERNIKE
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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