Crafting effective college alcohol policies that protect the health and life of students is harder than it might appear. That’s because what first appears to be an easy solution fails.
I. Ineffective College Alcohol Policies
Some colleges use scare tactics. They stress the horrible things that could happen as a result of alcohol abuse. However, the scarrier the message, the more students discount it. It may be effective for some students. However, any benefits soon disappear.
Research since the 1930s has shown the ineffectiveness of the scare approach. The approach seems “common sense” but it doesn’t work.
Crack Down Hard
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. Then Harvard 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 punches and unfamiliar alcoholic drinks. As a result, they had a harder time figuring how much alcohol they had consumed and when to stop.
Punish the Innocent
Another popular policy 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? It’s that students who aren’t drinking need to stay away from those who are. That is, stay away from those who might need the help of someone who is sober. Someone who is able able to give perhaps lifesaving help.
Abstainers are also less likely to take a sick friend for medical help. They 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.
The result of “tough on drinking” policies is to reduce student health and safety. These well-meaning policies encourage students 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. That’s because proven, effective methods are available.
II. Effective College Alcohol Policies
Social Norms Clarification
For example, the social norms (or social norms marketing) approach has shown 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. For them, it’s an “Aha!” revelation.
It involves conducting anonymous surveys to determine the extent of drinking and alcohol abuse. Then publicizing or “marketing” the correct facts. Most colleges use their own personnel and students to implement the program.
The social norms marketing approach is successful in greatly 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.
Learn more at What is Social Norms Marketing?
Another technique that has shown effectiveness in reducing alcohol use and abuse is Brief Intervention. It’s often a part of Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS).
Brief intervention appear to be effective for two basic reasons. First, it leads people to think about their use of alcohol. Is it helping them achieve their goals? Is it causing them harm in any way? Would they be better off reducing their level of consumption? Would they be better off drinking less often? And so on.
Second, brief intervention points them in the direction of learning skills to help them reduce their drinking.
Discover more at Brief Intervention Techniques for Alcohol.
Alcohol harm reduction policies reduce the harm that can result from excessive drinking. However, it can be applied to many behaviors.
For example, we know that driving a car involves the danger of injury or death. We could try to discourage or even prevent people from driving. But that wouldn’t be practical.
Instead, we use harm reduction. It involves licensing people to drive after they have demonstrated a level of driving knowledge and skill. We establish rules of the road, speed limits, laws against driving while impaired, require safety belt use, etc.
Similarly, we could try to prevent all student drinking. But that would fail. Just as National Prohibition (1920-1933) failed.
Instead, we can use harm reduction. In fact, one national harm reduction proposal is to issue drinking learner permits. They would serve the same protective function served my driving learner permits. Obviously, colleges can’t do that. However, it illustrates the principle of harm reduction.
Learn more at Harm Reduction for Drinking.
In short, effective college alcohol policies exist. So college alcohol abuse can be reduced.
Cheung, Y. et al. Harm Reduction. Toronto: U Toronto, Press, 2016.
Dimeff, L., et al. Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS). NY: Guilford, 1999
Hanson, D. J. Effectiveness of specific public policies on substance abuse prevention. Curr Opin Psych, 1996, 9, 235-238.
Kilmer, J., & Logan, D. Applying harm reduction strategies on college campuses. In C. Correia et al., (Eds.) College Student Alcohol Abuse. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2012. Pp. 146-165.
Marlatt, G. et al. Harm Reduction. NY: Guilford, 2012.
Perkins, H. (Ed.) The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Substance Abuse: A Handbook. Orlando, FL: Jossey-Bass, 2004.