Liquor Bans on College Campuses
Some institutions of higher education have imposed new alcohol policies. These policies establish liquor bans on college campuses. The policies now restrict the possession or consumption of distilled spirits. Often called liquor, distilled spirits are vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, tequila and other distilled beverages.
These policies are well-intentioned. They’re an effort to reduce the harms sometimes associated with alcohol abuse.
Unfortunately, the policies will almost certainly be ineffective. That’s because they’re based on an old myth. That myth makes a big distinction between spirits on the one hand, and beer and wine on the other.
In reality, standard drinks of beer, wine and spirits all contain the same amount of alcohol. In each case it’s 6/10ths of one ounce of pure alcohol. They’re all the same to a breathalyzer.
A standard drink is:
• A 12-ounce bottle or can of regular beer.
• A 5-ounce glass of dinner wine.
• A one and 1/2 ounce of 80 proof distilled spirits. (Either straight or in a mixed drink.)
Thus, the policies falsely distinguishes between these beverages. In doing this, they send a dangerous message. It’s that beer and wine are drinks of moderation and that spirits beverages are drinks of abuse.
Of course, there are no drinks of either moderation or abuse. There are only behaviors of moderation or abuse. That’s why any alcohol policy should focus on behavior itself.
These new alcohol policies are likely to be counter-productive. Reactance theory predicts that students will drink more spirits as a result. Here’s why.
- Students have expected to be able to drink spirits.
- They believe they should be able to do so.
- They are now (in their minds) unfairly prohibited and their autonomy denied.
- Therefore, they will drink more spirits in order to assert their freedom of choice and autonomy.
Reactance theory accurately predicts a wide variety of behaviors under such conditions. That includes drinking behaviors.
There’s no reason to enact policies based on a myth. And ones that might well prove to be counter-productive. Fortunately, scientific evidence supports some programs. One example is that of social norms clarification, often called social norms marketing.
Social Norms Clarification
Research has repeatedly shown that most students misperceive the quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption on their campuses. Most students falsely believe that most other students drink much more than they really do. And most students want to ‘fit in.’ Therefore, most students either either drink or drink more than they prefer. This phenomenon is pluralistic ignorance.
Social norms clarification works by reducing pluralistic ignorance. It does this my conducting a widespread anonymous survey on a campus to determine the actual quantity and frequency of drinking. It then publicizes or markets this information. Once students realize the reality, they are empowered to reduce their consumption to the lower levels they usually prefer.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) provides useful information about many programs. Its College AIM: Alcohol Intervention Matrix is online. Alternatively, readers can order free hard copies of the document on the same site.
Conclusion: Liquor Bans on College Campuses
Standard drinks of spirits, beer and wine all contain the same amount of alcohol. Because they’re all the same to breathalyzers, they should also be the same to colleges and universities.
Bans on spirits are probably ineffective. There’s no evidence they work. Even worse, they may be counter-productive.
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