Dying to Drink
by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.
Correcting distorted beliefs about the extent to which college students both drink and abuse alcohol has proven to be a highly effective way to reduce both the consumption and the abuse of alcohol among students.
Students going off to college almost always believe that "everyone" is drinking heavily and abusing alcohol. This "reign of error" is one of the most consistently-found facts in social research. By conducting surveys of actual student use of alcohol on a campus and then widely publicizing the results, mispeceptions are eleminated and students, thus empowered by the real facts, tend to drink less or not at all.
Called social norms marketing, the technique is highly effective, inexpensive, and the positive results occur quickly. Study after study has demonstrated its clear effectiveness.
Wechsler Attacks Social Norms Marketing
However, Henry Wechsler asserts in his book, Dying to Drink:Confronting Binge Drinking on College Campuses, that social norms marketing is based on unproven assumptions, in spite of the fact that those assumptions are among the most consistently-supported in all of social research. Ironically, his own research is supportive! 1
Prof. Wechsler then prints his interview of the vice-president of a company that sells an alternative alcohol education program, for which no evidence of effectiveness is available. Not surprisingly, this competitor has unkind things to say about his competition. 2 Social norms marketing would appear to be a major threat to his business income because it's both "free for the taking" and highly effective.
Truth and Accuracy are Essential
The key to social norms marketing is telling the truth. Any exaggeration or distortion of the actual extent of alcohol use and abuse actually contributes to the problem....is a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy.
Unfortunately, Henry Wechsler has popularized in the media the very misleading term "binge" in describing collegiate drinking. Bingeing actually refers to a period of extended intoxication lasting at least two days during which time the drinker neglects usual life responsibilities. That's what it means to physicians and other clinicians and that's what it tends to mean to the public as well.
To refer, as Wechsler does, to consuming four drinks on an occasion (five for men) as a binge is deceptive and misleading. As The New York Times observed, such "bingers" might very well have no measurable blood alcohol content (BAC), because the typical college social event lasts about six or seven hours, according to research. 3
To use a term suggesting that 44% of college students become intoxicated for days on end is useful only if the intent is to inflate the extent of the problem and mislead the public. In elementary school, that's called lying.
Any bingeing is too much, is totally unacceptable and is dangerous. But the real rate of binge drinking on US college and university campuses is not 44%, as Wechsler claims, but appears to be less than one-half of one percent! Most important is the fact that such gross exaggeration contributes to the problem of abusive drinking. Those who insist on misusing the term "binge" are actually doing more harm than good.
Unfortunately, Henry Wechsler seems to have a vested interest in using that deceptive term. Reporting that 44% of college students "binge" gets him press attention, TV appearances and highly-paid speaking engagements; reporting that fewer than one-half of one percent binge would be greeted with yawns and no attention or income. But it would be honest and wouldn't cause anyone any harm.
Although most researchers in the field of alcohol abuse prevention no longer use the term binge inappropriately because of its obvious danger in stimulating heavy drinking among young people, Wechlser tries to defend his misuse of the term. Becaue the logic of not misusing the term is so compelling, he is forced to resort to personal attacks against those who have called for the use of alternative terms.
Not only most young people but most Americans in general believe that alcohol abuse is much more common than it really and they also incorrectly believe that it's a growing problem. But government survey after survey tell a different story. Alcohol-related problems continue to drop and it's clearly important to spread that news in order to accelerate the reduction.
Along comes Henry Wechsler with a provocatively-titled book, Dying to Drink, the dust jacket of which proclaims that "Wechsler warns that drinking on campus is taking a bigger toll than most of us realize." It cautions that "Perhaps more chilling than the cold facts and figures are the personal confessions gathered through interviews," a fact that reflects the anecdotal, unscientific nature of the book. The blurb continues "But Dying to Drink doesn't just aim to scare" because it presents Wechsler's proposals to address the problem.
Some of Wechsler's recommendations for changing colleges and their surrounding communities have already faced legal challenge for violating rights guaranteed all citizens under the United States Constitution.
Many parents will reject his implication that they should quit drinking to be good role models. And it's certainly inconsistent with his recommendation that we respect cultural heritages. Italians, Greeks, Jews, Portuguese and many others aound the world have found that their cultural heritage of being good role models by drinking in moderation reduces the incidence of alcohol abuse.
Most people recognize the importance of personal responsibility. In fact it's a foundation of our social and legal systems. But Wechsler labels as a myth the fact that "As an individual, it's up to me to drink responsibly" if I choose to drink. Arguing that personal responsibility is a myth is a dangerous idea to promote and provides a handy excuse for engaging in inappropriate behaviors when intoxicated. Our society has rejected intoxication as an excuse and now Wechsler comes along and undermines our hard-won progress, perhaps setting us back decades.
Attempting to enforce prohibition on adults aged 18, 19, and 20 is not likely to be highly successful. In fact, it's probably counter-productive. By not promoting social norms marketing and other highly effective programs, Henry Wechsler has failed to make a positive contribution to the health and safety of our young adults. To the contrary, he has contributed to the problem.
Pragmatism rather than rigid adherance to ideology should guide our efforts to reduce alcohol-related problems. Our young people deserve nothing less.
Dying to Drink: Confronting Binge Drinking on College Campuses was written by Henry Wechsler and Bernice Wuethrich and published by Rodale Press in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.