College are often using two popular but very conflicting approaches to reduce alcohol abuse. Thus, some have inconsistent college alcohol policies. Not only are they inconsistent, but they are in conflict.
- One is an aggressive no-use, zero tolerance policy, especially toward the consumption or possession of alcohol by anyone under the age of 21. It stresses vigorous law enforcement followed by strong penalties. And it commonly attempts to “scare ’em straight.” It tries to do so by exaggerating the dangers of drinking and alcohol abuse. (See Zero Tolerance.)
- The other is the social norms approach. It recognizes the reality of underage drinking and reduces the harms from alcohol abuse. It uses facts to correct the misperception that drinking and alcohol abuse are more common that they really are. This empowers students to abstain or to consume less. That’s what they usually prefer.
The evidence clearly shows that social norms marketing is a very effective method to reduce alcohol abuse. Unfortunately, it also shows that zero tolerance is not only ineffective by often counter productive. That is, it’s worse than doing nothing.
These two methods are based on diametrically opposed assumptions and their use is inconsistent with each other.
Astonishingly, many colleges and universities are using both simultaneously. This greatly reduces that ability of social norms marketing to be effective. Stressing or even exaggerating drinking problems is inconsistent with publicizing the truth and correcting misperceptions.
Catering to pressures from different constituencies and pressure groups may be politically wise for college administrators. However, by doing so they sacrifice the effectiveness of their programs and fail to meet the needs of their students.
Resources: Inconsistent College Alcohol Policies
Cimini, M. and Rivero, E. Promoting Behavioral Health and Reducing Risk among College Students. NY: Routledge, 2019.
Hurley, R. Underage Drinking. NY: Nova, 2018.