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National College Alcohol Study Finds No Evidence That Widely Used Alcohol Prevention Programs Reduce Student Drinking

Press Release   |   Abstract   |   Article   |   Letter to the Community

Link Found Between High-Profile, Well-Funded Social Norms Marketing Programs and Increases in Some Measures of Student Drinking

BOSTON, MA (July 24, 2003)— A new report released today by the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study (CAS) has found no drop in student drinking on university campuses that use social norms marketing techniques in their prevention efforts. The study also reported that at some schools that used social norms marketing, the number of students who consumed alcohol in the past month increased, as did the number of students who drank 20 or more drinks in the past month. No such increases were found in schools that did not use social norms approaches. The report is the first independent national evaluation of social norms programs.

The study will be published in the July issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, a peer-reviewed publication of the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers University, and was funded by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

In recent years, the social norms marketing approach has gained popularity with college administrators and health educators. Social norms marketing promotes healthy norms about alcohol consumption in order to reduce college student binge drinking. The approach assumes that most students think that their classmates drink more than they actually do – a misperception that leads students to drink more in order to “fit in.” Social norms marketing attempts to correct this misperception – with the expectation that this will induce students to drink less. Examples of social norms messages are: "Most students at (school name) have five or fewer drinks when they party" or “Most students at (school name) drink moderately when they party.” Posters, flyers and other mass media distributed around campus convey these messages.

Of the schools in the study, almost half had adopted social norms marketing programs. Most of those schools had high binge drinking rates at baseline, indicating that many schools that have a high rate of problem drinking are turning to social norms to address their alcohol problems.

“We looked at social norms marketing programs in every conceivable way to see if they had any positive effect,” said Henry Wechsler, PhD, Principal Investigator of the study and Director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health. “We evaluated multiple measures of student drinking. We also looked at schools where the programs had been in existence the longest, and where the largest proportion of students had been exposed to the programs. And, we examined each school individually. But we found no decline in the quantity, frequency or volume of student alcohol intake on social norms campuses – in fact, we found an increase in two of the seven measures of drinking.”

Wechsler and his colleagues’ findings about the effectiveness of social norms marketing programs are based on a nationally representative sample of U.S. colleges, including responses from students on alcohol use at four-year colleges that participated in the 1993, 1997 and 1999 surveys. The study also used information provided by college administrators about their schools' use of social norms strategies.

The study analyzed students’ exposure to social norms marketing programs and their drinking behavior before and after social norms programs were implemented. It compared drinking behaviors at 37 colleges that employed social norms programs for at least one year to 61 that did not use such programs. The comparison evaluated seven standard measures of drinking: drinking in the past year; drinking in the past month; heavy episodic or binge drinking; drinking 20 or more drinks in the past month; drinking 10 or more times in the past month; drunk at least three times in past month, and; usually consuming five or more drinks at a time.

On each of the seven measures, “We found no improvement that could be attributed to adopting a social norms marketing program,” said Wechsler. This was true for all schools with the social norms program, including schools where students had the highest exposure to social norms messages, and schools where the program had been in effect for two years or more.

Previous CAS studies have found that four in five college students drink alcohol and two in five engage in binge drinking. Binge drinking is commonly defined in public health research as the consumption of five or more drinks in a row at least once in the past two weeks for men, and four or more drinks in a row for women. Research has shown that this style of binge drinking is associated with lower grades, vandalism, and physical and sexual violence. Students who do not binge drink experience many “secondhand effects” from the binge drinking behavior of other students, including physical assault or unwanted sexual advances, vandalized property and interruptions of sleep or study.

"Just last year, the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study found that nearly half of all college students are putting themselves and others at-risk from their binge drinking; it is unfortunate that these rates have remained the same for the past eight years, at 44 percent. Clearly, this is a disturbing trend that requires multiple approaches and programs aimed at reducing binge drinking on college campuses," said J. Michael McGinnis, M.D., Senior Vice President and Director of the Health Group of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The authors urge further research on social norms alcohol programs and other methods aimed at curbing student binge drinking. They also indicate that the widespread adoption of social norms marketing programs has occurred despite the lack of scientific evidence of their effectiveness. While much has been written about social norms marketing programs, few articles are found in professional peer-reviewed literature. Only four studies examine whether these programs change student drinking behavior and they are all limited to single college campuses. Three of the studies have study design problems, such as a failure to use a random representative sample of students; lack of a control group; and the inclusion of a larger percentage of students who were less likely to drink heavily (e.g. women) in the final sample of the study than in the initial sample. The fourth study found no significant differences attributable to social norms programs.

“One problem with this approach is that many students do not care about what the ‘typical’ student does,” said Wechsler. “Especially in large schools with diverse student bodies, students are more likely to be influenced by their immediate circle of friends than by the drinking habits of a mythical average student, who is alluded to in social norms programs.”

The authors said that social norms marketing programs are appealing because of their positive, non-threatening approach. “The programs downplay the level of drinking on campus. In the process, they normalize drinking and de-emphasize the negative consequences of heavy drinking. Perhaps, this makes them attractive to the alcohol industry as well,” said Wechsler. “In some cases, alcohol company logos have appeared on social norms marketing materials.”

The study reported that in recent years the Department of Education and other federal government agencies, as well as major beer producers have committed over $8 million dollars to support for social norms marketing programs nationwide.

The study concluded by pointing out the need for a comprehensive approach to the problem of heavy drinking on college campuses. It noted that other measures--such as enforcing the minimum-age drinking law, and limiting the ease of access to and cheap price of alcohol around colleges--have more empirical support than do social norms programs.

“We urge college administrators and health educators to base their prevention programs on scientific evidence instead of the perception of promise,” said Wechsler.

Joining Dr. Wechsler as authors of the article, “Perception and Reality: A National Evaluation of Social-Norms Marketing Interventions to Reduce College Students’ Heavy Alcohol Use,” are: Toben F. Nelson, M.S., Mark Siebring, M.T.S., and Catherine Lewis, B.B.A. at the Harvard School of Public Health; Jae Eun Lee, Dr.P.H. at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas; and Richard P. Keeling, MD of Richard P. Keeling & Associates, Inc.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, based in Princeton, N.J., is the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care. It concentrates its grantmaking in four goal areas: to assure that all Americans have access to quality health care at reasonable cost; to improve the quality of care and support for people with chronic health conditions; to promote healthy communities and lifestyles; and to reduce the personal, social and economic harm caused by substance abuse - tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs. To this end, the Foundation supports scientifically valid, peer-reviewed research on the prevention and treatment of illegal and underage substance use, and the effects of substance abuse on the public's health and well-being.

(Reference for DOE expenditures) Education Development Center, Higher Education Center. Winners of the Grant Competition to Prevent High-Risk Drinking and Violent Behavior Among College Students FY 2001, 2001, (available at:

(Reference for Anheuser-Busch expenditures) American Medical Association. Partner or Foe? The Alcohol Industry, Youth Alcohol Problems, and Alcohol Policy Strategies, 2001 (available at

(Reference for social norms marketing materials) National Social Norms Resource Center, (available at, under Resources and click on Sample Posters).

For more information about industry support of college alcohol prevention programs, see “Dying to Drink: Confronting Binge Drinking on College Campuses,” by Henry Wechsler and Bernice Wuethrich, (Rodale, Inc.).

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