Colleges switch tactics to fight alcohol abuse

Posted on Monday, October 25, 2004

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis, Mo.

The Web site shows a picture of five students laughing together on the campus lawn. The message below it reads, "Two out of three Washington University students have four or fewer drinks when they party."

It's an approach to curbing alcohol abuse among college and university campuses called "social norming" - showing that those who binge-drink or drive drunk are actually on the fringe. That not everyone else is doing it.

It's a simple concept: Provide accurate information about student drinking through long-term mass marketing techniques and, hopefully, reduce high-risk behaviors. It's an effort to show that the majority of students are either not drinking at all or drinking responsibly.

Washington University's campaign, called "Just the Facts," got under way two months ago. Recent events show just how tough it is for a university to fight the alcohol problem.

Last week, the university barred alcohol from all Greek-related activities for the rest of the semester. The decision came after a series of violations that culminated with a melee on fraternity row earlier this month where two security guards were injured. Other violations have included fights, property damage and failing to register alcohol-related events with the university.

Researchers will be paying close attention to the campaign at Washington University. It is one of 32 colleges and universities chosen to participate in a five-year national study on the social norm approach, which is giving some colleges hope in curbing their alcohol-related problems.

"It's such a shift from the traditional way of thinking about prevention," said H. Wesley Perkins, sociology professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. Usually students see videos of mangled cars and hear testimonials of getting maimed or serving time in prison, he said, "but that doesn't happen to most people most of the time."

Stressing such extreme events is not a good way to get people to avoid behavior, especially among young adults, said Perkins, one of the nation's foremost experts on the topic. "They aren't thinking about their health if they are 18 to 34 years old. They are thinking about their social life."

Perkins was a popular speaker at a regional conference held Monday at the Sheraton Hotel in Clayton about combating alcohol abuse on college campuses. Hosts of the conference were the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade association.

The social norm approach has been studied for two decades and has gained in popularity during the past five years. One-third of colleges and universities say they have a social norm campaign, but only about 10 percent are doing it effectively, Perkins said. To be effective, schools must do more than just put up some posters for a semester, he said.

Perkins' research shows that universities with social norm campaigns have reduced high-risk drinking by 20 percent. And problems related to drinking, such as property damage, missing class and unprotected sex, have dropped anywhere from 30 percent to 40 percent, he said.

Nationwide study

But the strategy is not without its skeptics. Some doubt the research, and others see it as condoning or promoting drinking. That is why a broader, nationwide study is under way. The study, of which Washington University is a part, is called the Social Norms Research Project and is funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the U.S. Department of Education.

James McLeod, vice chancellor of students at Washington University, is excited about the prospect and believes it will yield positive results. He also was a speaker at the regional conference and mentioned the social norm approach as one aspect of the university's effort to curb drinking-related problems.

"The country has worked on this problem over half a century, and only now are we seeing a difference," McLeod said. "We are in a position now where we can be optimistic about the future."

So far, Washington University's campaign has involved setting up a Web site, putting up 300 posters, placing ads in the student newspaper and conducting public-service announcements.

The university received $2,000 as part of the study.

The University of Missouri at Columbia has had an extensive social norm campaign since 1995. It involves getting the message out on everything from mouse pads to student ID holders. In 2000, the university won a $300,000 state grant to get similar programs under way at all of the state's four-year, public universities.



Save and Share Article

To send feedback or make a suggestion for a future article, contact