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College Drinking Prevention Not Working

Social Norms Techniques Does Not Slow Binge Drinking


Updated July 24, 2003

A new report released by the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study (CAS) has found no drop in student drinking on university campuses that use social norms marketing techniques in their prevention efforts.

The study also reported that at some schools that used social norms marketing, the number of students who consumed alcohol in the past month increased, as did the number of students who drank 20 or more drinks in the past month. No such increases were found in schools that did not use social norms approaches. The report is the first independent national evaluation of social norms programs.

In recent years, the social norms marketing approach has gained popularity with college administrators and health educators. Social norms marketing promotes healthy norms about alcohol consumption in order to reduce college student binge drinking. The approach assumes that most students think that their classmates drink more than they actually do – a misperception that leads students to drink more in order to "fit in." Social norms marketing attempts to correct this misperception – with the expectation that this will induce students to drink less. Examples of social norms messages are: "Most students at (school name) have five or fewer drinks when they party" or "Most students at (school name) drink moderately when they party." Posters, flyers and other mass media distributed around campus convey these messages.

Of the schools in the study, almost half had adopted social norms marketing programs. Most of those schools had high binge drinking rates at baseline, indicating that many schools that have a high rate of problem drinking are turning to social norms to address their alcohol problems.

"We looked at social norms marketing programs in every conceivable way to see if they had any positive effect," said Henry Wechsler, PhD, Principal Investigator of the study and Director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health. "We evaluated multiple measures of student drinking. We also looked at schools where the programs had been in existence the longest, and where the largest proportion of students had been exposed to the programs. And, we examined each school individually. But we found no decline in the quantity, frequency or volume of student alcohol intake on social norms campuses – in fact, we found an increase in two of the seven measures of drinking."

Wechsler and his colleagues' findings about the effectiveness of social norms marketing programs are based on a nationally representative sample of U.S. colleges, including responses from students on alcohol use at four-year colleges that participated in the 1993, 1997 and 1999 surveys. The study also used information provided by college administrators about their schools' use of social norms strategies.

The study analyzed students' exposure to social norms marketing programs and their drinking behavior before and after social norms programs were implemented. It compared drinking behaviors at 37 colleges that employed social norms programs for at least one year to 61 that did not use such programs. The comparison evaluated seven standard measures of drinking: drinking in the past year; drinking in the past month; heavy episodic or binge drinking; drinking 20 or more drinks in the past month; drinking 10 or more times in the past month; drunk at least three times in past month, and; usually consuming five or more drinks at a time.

On each of the seven measures, "We found no improvement that could be attributed to adopting a social norms marketing program," said Wechsler. This was true for all schools with the social norms program, including schools where students had the highest exposure to social norms messages, and schools where the program had been in effect for two years or more.

Part Two: Students Don't Care

Source: College Alcohol Study News Release

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