“A Matter of Degree” Program to Prevent Alcohol Abuse is Ineffective

The very expensive “A Matter of Degree” (AMOD) program designed to reduce drinking and alcohol-related problems on college campuses has proven to be ineffective.

Ten universities across the U.S. received almost nine million dollars to reduce the presence of alcohol in their campus environments. A careful five-year evaluation of the program was conducted by one of its most enthusiastic supporters, Henry Wechsler, and his colleagues. They studied seven measures of alcohol consumption, 13 measures of alcohol-related problems or harms, and eight measures of secondhand effects of alcohol use on others.

The result? “No change” was found in any of the 28 measures of alcohol use or alcohol-related negative consequences. In short, the widely publicized “A Matter of Degree” program is a disappointing and costly flop. 1

Over the past few years glowing news reports on the program have repeatedly promised success, which has never materialized. But the “A Matter of Degree” program was doomed to fail from the start. That’s because the program is based on faulty assumptions about the causes and cures of alcohol abuse.

“A Matter of Degree” is built on the belief that alcoholic beverage advertisers, alcohol retailers, college administrators, even college communities are responsible for alcohol abuse by college students, rather than the alcohol abusers themselves.

Creating a dry environment didn’t work on college campuses during National Prohibition, and creating a dry or even “moist” environment won’t suddenly and miraculously work today. 2

But the temperance-oriented Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the program, continues to promote the ineffective program and others based on the same false assumptions. The Foundation not only ignores the demonstrated failure of its program but also actually implies that it has been a success!3

However, there is good news. The social norms technique has repeatedly proven effective in reducing the use and abuse of alcohol among students. It’s based on the fact that the vast majority of young people greatly exaggerate in their minds the quantity and frequency of drinking among their peers. Therefore, they tend to drink -- or drink more -- than they would otherwise, in an effort to “fit in.”

When credible surveys demonstrate the actual, much lower drinking rates on a campus, and the results are widely publicized or “marketed” to students, the imagined social pressure drops and so does youthful drinking. Study after study demonstrates that the technique. What’s more, social norms programs cost very little to implement.

References

  • 1. Weitzman, E.R., Nelson, T.H., Lee, H., and Wechsler, Henry. Reducing drinking and related harms in college: Evaluation of the “A Matter of Degree” program. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2004, 27(3), 187-196.
  • 2. Prohibition of Alcohol in the United States (https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/Controversies/1091124904.html)
  • 3. Proctor, Dwayne. The Time to Purge Binge Drinking is Now. JoinTogether Online, December 9, 2004. [Proctor is Senior Communications Officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation]

Readings

  • Baer, J. S., and Carney, M. M. Biases in the perceptions of the consequences of alcohol use among college students. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 1993, 54, 54-60.
  • Baer, J. S., Stacy, A., and Lattimer, M. Biases in the perception of drinking norms among college students. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 1991, 52, 580-586.
  • Berkowitz, Alan D. The Social Norms Approach: Theory, Research and Annotated Bibliography. Trumansburg, NY, 2003.
  • Berkowitz, Alan D., and Perkins, H. Wesley. Current Issues in Effective Alcohol Education Programming. In: Sherwood, J. S. (Ed.) Alcohol Policies and Practices on College and University Campuses. Washington, DC: National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, 1987.
  • DeJong, W. Reflections on social norms marketing. Catalyst, 2001, 6(3), 8 & 11.
  • DeJong, W., and Linkenbach, J. Telling it like it is: Using social norms marketing campaigns to reduce student drinking. American Association for Higher Education Bulletin, 1999, 52(4), 13-16.
  • Haines, Michael P. A Social Norms Approach to Preventing Binge Drinking at Colleges and Universities. Newton, Massachusetts: Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, 1996. [Copies available at no cost from the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention]
  • Haines, Michael P. Using media to change student norms and prevent alcohol abuse: A tested model. Oregon Higher Education Alcohol and Drug Newsletter, 1993, 1(2), 1-3.
  • Haines, Michael P., and Spear, A. F. Changing the perceptions of the norm: A strategy to decrease binge drinking among college students. Journal of American College Health, 1996, 45, 134-140.
  • Hansen, William B., and Graham, J. W. Preventing alcohol, marijuana and cigarette use among adolescents: Peer pressure resistance training versus establishing conservative norms. Preventive Medicine, 1991, 20, 414-430.
  • Johannessen, K., et al. A Practical Guide to Alcohol Abuse Prevention: A Campus Case Study in Implementing Social Norms and Environmental Management Approaches. Tucson, AZ: Campus Health Service, The University of Arizona, 1986. [A detailed examination of the first four years of the University of Arizona's social norm campaign, which achieved a 29% reduction in heavy drinking.]
  • Linkenbach, J.W. Application of social norms marketing to a variety of health issues. Wellness Management, 1999, 15(3).
  • Linkenbach, J. W. Building a Bridge: Applying the Social Norms Model to Sexual Health. The BACCHUS & GAMMA Sexual Responsibility Manual, 1999. [Available from the Bacchus & Gamma Peer Education Network, www.bacchusgamma.org.]
  • Linkenbach, J.W. Imaginary Peers and the Reign of Error: Binge Drinking Prevention Through Social Norms. The Prevention Connection: A Publication of the Montana Prevention Resource Center and the Addictive and Mental Disorders Division of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, 1999, (3), 1-5.
  • Linkenbach, J.W. Social Norms Marketing Highlight: Drinking And Driving. In P. Kotler, N. Roberto, & N. Lee (Eds.), Social Marketing: Improving the Quality of Life. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage (2nd Edition, 2002, pp. 162-166).
  • Linkenbach, J.W. (2002). Social Norms. In P. Kotler, N. Roberto, & N. Lee (Eds.), Social Marketing: Improving the Quality of Life. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage (2nd edition, 2002)
  • Linkenbach, J. W. and H. W. Perkins, "Misperceptions of Peer Alcohol Norms in a Statewide Survey of Young Adults," (2003). In: Perkins, H. Wesley (Ed) The Social Norms Approach To Preventing School And College Age Substance Abuse: A Handbook for Educators, Counselors, and Clinicians. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003. [ This book chapter reports the results of a state-wide survey of 18 to 24 year old residents in Montana that examines actual and perceived norms for frequency and quantity of alcohol consumption and prevalence of drinking and driving. Results again reveal dramatic discrepancies between actual and perceived norms for both men and women.]
  • Manoff, R.K Social Marketing: New Imperative for Public Health. Praeger Publishers, 1985.
  • Perkins, H. Wesley (Ed.) The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Age Substance Abuse: A Handbook for Educators, Counselors, and Clinicians. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.
  • Perkins, H. Wesley. College Student Misperceptions of Alcohol and Other Drug Norms among Peers: Exploring Causes, Consequences, and Implications for Prevention Programs. In: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention. Newton, MA: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, 1997. Pp. 177-206.
  • Perkins, H. Wesley. Scope of the problem: Misperceptions of alcohol and drugs. Prevention through correcting Misperceptions of alcohol and other drug norms: Notes on the state of the field. Catalyst, 1995, 1(3), 1-2.
  • Perkins, H. Wesley. Social norms and the prevention of alcohol misuse in college contexts. Journal of Studies on Alcohol/Supplement No. 14, 2002.
    [A review of conceptual and empirical studies on the role of social norms in college student alcohol use and in prevention strategies to counter misuse. The normative influences of various constituencies serving as reference groups for students are examined as possible factors influencing students' drinking behavior.]
  • Perkins, H. Wesley, and Berkowiz, Alan D. Perceiving the community norms of alcohol use among students: Some research implications for campus alcohol education programming. International Journal of Addictions, 1986, 21, 961-976.
  • Perkins, H. Wesley and Craig, David. A Multifaceted Social Norms Approach to Reduce High-Risk Drinking. Newton, MA: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, Education Development Center, Inc., 2002. [ Describes the Hobart and William Smith Colleges' Social Norms Project, which achieved a 30% reduction in high-risk drinking over 5 years. Contents include a complete description of program components, including data collection, print media campaigns, electronic media campaigns, curriculum development, and campus presentations.]
  • Perkins, H. Wesley, and Wechsler, Henry. Variations in perceived college drinking norms and its impact on alcohol abuse: A nationwide study. Journal of Drug Issues, 1996, 26, 961-974.
  • Wood, M. D., Nnagoshi, C. T., and Dennis, D. A. Alcohol norms and expectations as predictors of alcohol use and problems in a college student sample. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 1992, 18, 461-476.

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