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Students Don't Care About Drinking 'Norms'

Social Norms Marketing Techniques Fail on College Campuses

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Updated July 24, 2003

College Alcohol Study reports have found that four in five college students drink alcohol and two in five engage in binge drinking. Binge drinking is commonly defined in public health research as the consumption of five or more drinks in a row at least once in the past two weeks for men, and four or more drinks in a row for women.

Research has shown that this style of binge drinking is associated with lower grades, vandalism, and physical and sexual violence. Students who do not binge drink experience many "secondhand effects" from the binge drinking behavior of other students, including physical assault or unwanted sexual advances, vandalized property and interruptions of sleep or study.

"Just last year, the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study found that nearly half of all college students are putting themselves and others at-risk from their binge drinking; it is unfortunate that these rates have remained the same for the past eight years, at 44 percent. Clearly, this is a disturbing trend that requires multiple approaches and programs aimed at reducing binge drinking on college campuses," said J. Michael McGinnis, M.D., Senior Vice President and Director of the Health Group of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The authors urge further research on social norms alcohol programs and other methods aimed at curbing student binge drinking. They also indicate that the widespread adoption of social norms marketing programs has occurred despite the lack of scientific evidence of their effectiveness. While much has been written about social norms marketing programs, few articles are found in professional peer-reviewed literature.

Only four studies examine whether these programs change student drinking behavior and they are all limited to single college campuses. Three of the studies have study design problems, such as a failure to use a random representative sample of students; lack of a control group; and the inclusion of a larger percentage of students who were less likely to drink heavily (e.g. women) in the final sample of the study than in the initial sample. The fourth study found no significant differences attributable to social norms programs.

"One problem with this approach is that many students do not care about what the 'typical' student does," said Wechsler. "Especially in large schools with diverse student bodies, students are more likely to be influenced by their immediate circle of friends than by the drinking habits of a mythical average student, who is alluded to in social norms programs."

The authors said that social norms marketing programs are appealing because of their positive, non-threatening approach. "The programs downplay the level of drinking on campus. In the process, they normalize drinking and de-emphasize the negative consequences of heavy drinking. Perhaps, this makes them attractive to the alcohol industry as well," said Wechsler. "In some cases, alcohol company logos have appeared on social norms marketing materials."

The study reported that in recent years the Department of Education and other federal government agencies, as well as major beer producers have committed over $8 million dollars to support for social norms marketing programs nationwide.

The study concluded by pointing out the need for a comprehensive approach to the problem of heavy drinking on college campuses. It noted that other measures--such as enforcing the minimum-age drinking law, and limiting the ease of access to and cheap price of alcohol around colleges--have more empirical support than do social norms programs.

"We urge college administrators and health educators to base their prevention programs on scientific evidence instead of the perception of promise," said Wechsler. The study will be published in the July issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol.

Part One: Prevention Efforts Not Working

Source: College Alcohol Study News Release

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