Effective and Ineffective College Alcohol Policies
by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.
Crafting alcohol policies that effectively protect the health and life of college students is harder than it might appear. For example, why not simply “crack down hard” on all alcohol rule infractions? That should ensure compliance and abstinence from alcohol, or so it might appear.
When Harvard plays Yale ("The Game") many students drink excessively. When The Game was held one year, ten Harvard students were hospitalized. The University responded by cracking down on drinking by banning kegs from campus for the weekend of The Game. The result? At least 25 Harvard students were hospitalized that year. The result was predictable. Without access to their usual beer, many students turned to less familiar alcoholic drinks, had a harder time figuring how much alcohol they had consumed and when to stop. 1
Another popular policy around the country is punishing non-drinking underage students who are found in the presence of those who are drinking. Abstaining is punished as severely as underage drinking. This makes punishing underage students easier because no evidence is needed as to who was and wasn’t drinking.
But what message does such a policy send? Students who aren’t drinking need to stay away from those who are consuming alcohol -- and who might need the help of someone who is sober and able to provide perhaps lifesaving assistance. Abstainers will be less likely to take a sick friend for medical help and risk the punishment that would go with it, for both the students. And the more severe the punishment, the less likely will medical help be sought. 2
The result of “tough on drinking” policies is to reduce student health and safety. These well-meaning policies encourage students to get heavily intoxicated by consuming unfamiliar but easily concealed drinks, to drink in private rather than public, to drink without anyone sober around, and without seeking medical or other help if needed.
Using ineffective, even counterproductive, policies and practices is inexcusable because proven, effective methods are available. For example, the social norms (often called social norms marketing) approach has repeatedly demonstrated its effectiveness. It's based on the fact that virtually all students have greatly exaggerated perceptions about the extent of drinking and alcohol abuse among their peers. Therefore, they tend to drink or to drink more than they would like in order to "fit in." When students learn the real (lower) statistics, they feel less pressure to engage in such behaviors.
By conducting anonymous surveys to determine the extent of drinking and alcohol abuse and then publicizing or "marketing" the correct information, the social norms marketing approach has proven successful in significantly reducing the extent of drinking and alcohol abuse. Not only is the method effective, but it's inexpensive to implement and the positive results occur rather quickly. 3
Another technique that has repeatedly proven effective in reducing alcohol use and abuse is known as Brief Intervention, typically as part of Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS). 4
College alcohol abuse can be reduced.