How to Fight Binge Drinking

Why the Plan Suggested by the 'Harvard Study' Falls Short

The findings of the 1993 so-called "Harvard study" on national campus drinking trends quantified what college and university officials had suspected for some time: 44 percent of their students binge drink, or consume five drinks (four for women) in a single occasion at least once every two weeks.

At the time of its publication, the study shifted the national media's focus to drinking and garnered attention for the study's coordinator, School of Public Health Lecturer Henry Wechsler. What concerns Wechsler--as well as many college officials--is that heavy drinking has been associated with health problems, car crashes, unsafe sex and aggressive behavior among college students. It was alcohol-induced "aggressive behavior" on our campus, for example, that influenced a senior linebacker on the football team to pummel a visiting high school recruit last year.

The recruit, who suffered a blowout fracture to his left eye, withdrew his application to Harvard. (Harvard was not included in Wechsler's study.) The D.U., where the fight took place, closed down this fall partly in response to the incident.

Understandably, Wechsler is concerned about incidents like the one at the D.U., where students' behavior is adversely affected by drinking.

"Binge drinking is arguably the No. 1 public health hazard and the primary source of preventable morbidity and mortality for the more than 6 million full-time college students in America," writes Wechsler in a July 1995 article in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH). The difficulty for college officials, who must be careful not to give the appearance of condoning violations of the law, is to enact realistic policies. For many schools, it means encouraging abstinence for students under 21, many of whom drink regardless of legal restrictions.


Recogniz the difficulties involved in enforcing abstinence among the 44 percent of the student population that binge drink and the many more college-aged drinkers who consume alcohol but are not technically "binge drinkers," Wechsler has tried to draw attention to the behavior of heavy drinkers.

Drawing parallels with the successful anti-smoking campaign, Wechsler advocates framing the consequences of drinking in terms of what he calls "secondhand binge effects." It is Wechsler's hope that students adversely affected by their friends' drinking will realize the harmful effects of alcohol and change their own behavior, if not their friends' as well.

Wechsler's behavioral approach has certain key advantages for administrators seeking to enact policy because it undercuts the difficulties faced by colleges trying to reach underage students involved in drinking who may not respond to a message stressing only abstinence. In his December 1994 AJPH article, Wechsler concludes that colleges who hope to reduce binge drinking on their campus "should focus on frequent binge drinkers, refer them to treatment or educational programs and emphasize the harm they cause for students who are not binge drinkers."

While Wechsler offers an innovative solution to a long-standing problem that college administrators would be wise to consider, it has two important flaws for implementation on college campuses. First, the battle against "second-hand binge effects" presumably encourages students to realize the effects that their roommates, friends' or lab partners' drinking have on their own college career. By identifying the hazards caused by drinking on peer groups, Wechsler hopes to mobilize students to drink more moderately or not to drink at all.

Moderation, however, is not easily defined. It cannot be defined in terms of action or behavior on the part of the drinker, as Wechsler advocates, because the students who are adversely affected by drunkards perceive the extent of the harm in different ways. For example, a student who has never encountered drinking before may be more appalled at having to clean up after his roommate than a student who looked after her siblings when they drank during high school. Since students come from different backgrounds, it is logical that there exists a gap in student's perceptions of the degree to which thinking creates problems, even when they are personally involved.

The second problem with Wechsler's theory involves is the difficulty students have associating their own behavior with the hazards of heavy drinking. Even when those hazards are publicized through a college's punishment of a drunkard, as Wechsler suggests, students will not be quick to change their own drinking habits. Although danger and harmful effects like the fight at the D.U. are easier to define universally, students--particularly drinkers--will not be easily convinced by Wechsler's approach unless the tragedy personally involves them.

According to cognitive psychology's attribution theory, individuals tend to attribute negative actions to the environment rather than to the people who have been harmed or to the use of alcohol. In other words, students are less likely to be affected by Wechsler's approach because of their tendency to remove themselves from the effects of heavy drinking by placing the responsibility on the environment--on the way "things are." In that way, students remove the harmful event from their personal understanding.

As a result, Wechsler's "secondhand binge effects" theory may not be as universally successful as it first appears. Wechsler's approach only emphasizes teaching students about the harmful effects of heavy drinking: it does not actually focus on affecting whether students feel the moral burden of those lessons.

In designing policy to combat alcohol abuse, Hobart and William Smith sociologist H. Wesley Perkins has found that students' perceptions of their environment plays a critical role in how they choose to approach drinking.

While Perkins agrees with Wechsler that attention must be paid to the social influences affecting students, he has discovered that students grossly misperceive the amount that an average student should drink. That is, students assume that normal drinking levels are higher than what each individual would prefer. So the definition of moderate drinking does not only vary in regard to particular students' relationship with drinking, but individual students hold inaccurate assumptions about moderating their own behavior.