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.

References

  • 1. Eidelson, Josh. Yale’s peers show how not to craft an alcohol policy. Yale Daily News, October 11, 2005.
  • 2. Eidelson, Josh. Yale’s peers show how not to craft an alcohol policy. Yale Daily News, October 11, 2005.
  • 3. Haines, M. 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; H. Wesley Perkins, has edited The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Substance Abuse: A Handbook for Educators, Counselors, and Clinicians. Orlando, FL: Jossey-Bass, 2004 (ISBN 0-7879-6459-X).
  • 4. Marlatt, G. A., Baer, J. S., Kivlahan, D. R., Dimeff, L. A., Larimer, M. E., Quigley, L. A., Somers, J. M., & Williams, E. (1998). Screening and brief intervention for high-risk college student drinkers: Results from a two-year follow-up assessment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66(4), 604-615.

Readings

  • Baer, J. S., Marlatt, G. A., Kivlahan, D. R., Fromme, K., Larimer, M. E., & Williams, E. (1992). An experimental test of three methods of alcohol risk reduction with young adults. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 50(6), 974-979.
  • Dimeff, L.A., Baer, J.S., Kivlahan, D.R., & Marlatt, G.A. (1999). Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS). A Harm Reduction Approach. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Haines, M. 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.
  • Hanson, D. J. Effectiveness of specific public policies on substance abuse prevention. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 1996, 9, 235-238.
  • Marlatt, G. A., Baer, J. S., & Larimer, M. E. (1995) Preventing alcohol abuse in college students: A harm reduction approach. In G. M. Boyd, J. Howard, & R. A. Zucker (Eds.), Alcohol Problems Among Adolescents (pp. 147-171). Hillsdale, NJ : L. Erlbaum Associates.
  • Marlatt, G. A., Baer, J. S., Kivlahan, D. R., Dimeff, L. A., Larimer, M. E., Quigley, L. A., Somers, J. M., & Williams, E. (1998). Screening and brief intervention for high-risk college student drinkers: Results from a two-year follow-up assessment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66(4), 604-615.
  • Miller, E., Kilmer, J.R., Kim, E.L., Weingardt, K.R., & Marlatt, G.A. (2001). Alcohol skills training for college students. In P.M. Monti, S.M. Colby, & T.A. O'Leary (eds.) Adolescents, Alcohol and Substance Abuse: Reaching Teens Through Brief Intervention. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Miller, W.R. and Rollnick, S. (1991). Motivational Interviewing: Preparing People to Change Addictive Behavior. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Miller, W.R., Zweben, A., DiClemente, C.C., Rychtarik, R.G. Motivational Enhancement Therapy Manual, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Project MATCH Monograph Series, Volume 2.
  • Murgoff, V., et al. Moderating binge drinking. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 1996, 31(6), 577.
  • Perkins, H. W., and Craig, D. W. A Multifaceted Social Norms Approach to Reduce High-Risk Drinking. Newton, Massachusetts: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, 2002.
  • Prochaska, J. O. and C. C. DiClemente (1983). Stages and processes of self-change of smoking: Toward an integrative model of change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 51(3): 390-395.
  • Prochaska, J. O. and C. C. DiClemente (1992). Stages of Change in the Modification of Problem Behaviors. Newbury Park, CA, Sage.
  • Zimmerman, R. Social Marketing Strategies for Campus Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems. Newton, Massachusetts: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, 1997.