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A report by a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) that claims to debunk an increasingly popular method of limiting college alcohol abuse has provoked vitriolic responses from an enclave of colleagues, stoking longstanding professional and personal antagonisms, some say.
A study led by Henry Wechsler, director of the 10-year-old College Alcohol Study—whose research was cited in the decision to ban kegs from the Harvard-Yale Game last year—concludes that so-called “social norms” marketing, an anti-alcohol program based on the notion that most college students overestimate their peers’ drinking, does not effectively control alcohol abuse. But some researchers and social norms proponents say the report’s results are flawed, alleging that Wechsler’s methodology is skewed toward a favored outcome.
Wechsler’s report, which surveyed students and administrators at 118 United States colleges and universities, said the 37 schools that had adopted a social norms program showed “a pattern of significant increase in drinking” whereas schools without a social norms program exhibited no distinct statistical trends.
But the study, published at the end of last month, elicited strong opposition from many of Wechsler’s colleagues.
“The people who believe this message aren’t happy with the finding,” Wechsler said. “They’ve attacked me and the study, sometimes even before they’re read the study.”
But at least some critics take issue with the content of the report itself. Opponents of Wechsler’s conclusion say the study draws its results from an incorrectly classified data pool.
Wechsler and his colleagues determined whether an institution was using a social norms program by asking its administrators. Critics of the study say that a number of schools were misrepresented as a result of this self-identification.
“There’s no effort made to look at the quality of the [social norms] campaign, and how extensive it was,” said William DeJong, a Boston University professor and director of the Higher Education for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, which endorses social norms program as part of a comprehensive approach. “One issue is—did they even understand what the term meant?”
H. Wesley Perkins, co-developer of the social norms method and professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, said that all 37 schools comprising Wechsler’s social norms pool—from which he and his colleagues drew data between 1997 and 2001—could not all have been practicing the social norms program properly.
“By the late 1990s, there were no more than a couple dozen schools in total that were really doing social norms programs,” he said. “At best, one or two [used in Wechsler’s study] would have been schools that were intentionally doing social norms at that time.”
Proper use of the social norms program—which uses multiple information sources to send students the message that little or no drinking, rather than heavy alcohol consumption, is the campus norm—entails exposure to a systematically designed media campaign and awareness training over an extended period of time, according to Alan Berkowitz, an independent consultant who co-founded the social norms approach.
DeJong said Wechsler’s study failed to account for a more complicated network of influence in college environments.
“There are lots of other things happening on these campuses,” he said. “In order to give social norms marketing a fair chance, you have to take those things into account.”
Wechsler’s criticism of the social norms model stems in part from his belief that it targets students too broadly. He believes that alcohol behavior results more from a local group of friends than from perception of the entire student body’s behavior, he said.
DeJong explained that a study of drinking behavior at 32 colleges that he and his colleagues are undertaking so far seems to disprove such a hypothesis.
“If the variation in how much they drink is well accounted for by how much their friends drink, all should be well,” he explained. “But that is not the case.” Even when his study considered the degree of drinking in students’ social groups, some behavior remained explained, he said.
The researchers disagree about the degree of literature proving the effectiveness of the social norms system and its principles.
Wechsler said he began research on the effectiveness of the social norms method largely because little research existed prior to his.
“It’s so popular and it’s been picked up by so many schools when in fact there’s very little scientific evidence to support it,” he said.
DeJong said almost 40 studies exist demonstrating that students overestimate the drinking behavior of their college peers, the principle on which the social norms method is based.
Both Wechsler and his critics suggest that personal biases play an active role in the ongoing debate.
Perkins suggested that Wechsler’s opposition to the social norm method might result from controversy over his work in earlier studies.
“He’s been an outspoken critic in large part, I think, because people in the field of social norms have been critical of his standard of binge drinking,” he said.
Wechsler defines binge drinking as five drinks in a row for men and four for women over the previous two weeks. Critics felt that his measure ought to incorporate data like weight and time interval.
In light of his most recent findings, Wechsler said he would urge colleges to consider options other than the social norms approach. Such options, he said, might include working to diminish alcohol supply.
“To me, the heart of the problem is selling high-volume supply, kegs, pitchers and fishbowls, at very low prices,” he said.
Undergraduate Council President Rohit Chopra ’04 said Wechsler’s previous research was cited in the College’s decision to ban kegs from the premises of the Harvard-Yale Game last year.
But former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 said that Wechsler’s research was not a major influence on the College’s general standards for alcohol consumption and treatment.
“I found Dr. Wechsler’s results thought provoking. But I wouldn’t say that College alcohol policies were strongly influenced by any particular researcher,” Lewis wrote in an e-mail. “In most respects, Harvard College’s alcohol policies didn’t change very much in recent years.”
Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 said that he does not expect any major changes to Harvard’s alcohol policy as a result of Wechsler’s most recent report. Alterations in the College’s present policy will probably result in part from student input, he explained.
“I want to let the policy emerge from discussions with undergraduates,” he said.
—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at email@example.com.
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