Reducing College Drinking

A study analyzing alcohol abuse interventions for college students has found that harm-reduction strategies such as choosing a designated driver and encouraging students to drink less are more effective than urging total abstinence.

“Harm reduction approaches make a great deal of sense,“ notes Dr. Mark Wood, a psychologist not associated with the study. "First, it's important to note that harm reduction exists on a continuum that begins with abstinence and ranges to practices that minimize the likelihood of negative consequences, such as moderating consumption and using designated drivers. Obviously, the most effective way to avoid negative consequences is not to drink. However, despite the minimum legal drinking age of 21, that's not the reality for the overwhelming majority of college students. Therefore, harm-reduction approaches reason that it's ultimately more effective to try and meet someone 'where they're at' and work together to reduce risks and negative consequences."

For more on harm reduction (sometimes called health promotion), visit Harm Reduction Works for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The study also found that brief motivational intervention sessions are effective. The biggest benefit of motivational approaches “is that, unlike most other preventive intervention approaches that have been used and studied to date, they actually work in reducing alcohol use and related problems," said Wood. "Although we don't really know how they work, there are many likely reasons. First, MI is a collaborative, non-confrontational way of addressing behaviors like drinking. It is well suited for use with 'emerging adults,' who are likely to actively resist authoritarian edicts. Second, the approach focuses on assessing where a given student is at motivationally and tailors the intervention accordingly. For example, with a student who is drinking heavily and experiencing substantial negative consequences, but has given little thought to changing this behavior, the intervention would focus on increasing awareness of these negative consequences and both current and future risks related to them. Third, MI is relatively cost effective, can be implemented by trained nonprofessionals such as undergraduates, and may increase the likelihood of additional help seeking. These benefits are particularly pertinent for mandated students who are likely to enter the situation in a more defensive and resistant state."


  • Barnett, Nancy C. et al. Brief alcohol interventions with mandated or adjudicated college students. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 2004, 28(6).
  • College students mandated to take alcohol interventions: what works. Press release from the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 6-22-04.
  • Study: Harm Reduction Most effective in Curbing College Drinking. Join Together Online (