Activities Key to Cutting College Binge Drinking

Drops in binge and “problem” drinking among college students are being attributed to more late-night and alcohol-free activities being offered regularly. Although some argue that these activities will only attract non-drinkers or light drinkers, higher-education officials believe that it is important to support that crowd as well, because in the absence of those activities, they will likely become drinkers, too.

This item, which comes from the latest edition of The Network's newsletter, News from the Front (March 2011 -, is interesting in and of itself, but particularly provocative is its last statement referring to the need for colleges and universities to address the needs of their non-drinking or moderate drinking students in their alcohol-related programming. I take this statement one step farther and suggest that these students may be an untapped resource that can be helpful in addressing the quest to change campus culture as regards the role that alcohol as a substance and drinking as a behavior play in contemporary collegiate life.

It seems that whenever we hear about collegiate drinking it is either a report on the latest travesty resulting from some student’s drunken comportment—invariably courtesy of the popular media--or research article and clinical report related to high-risk collegiate drinking. Yet we know from study after study that most collegians are moderate in their consumption of alcohol if they drink at all--about 20% of college students nationally chose not to drink last year. Access to information about collegiate drinking tends to set up what social psychologists call “confirmation bias” or the tendency to look for evidence that supports a belief one already holds while overlooking or discounting evidence to the contrary.

With better than half of all college students either moderate in their drinking or abstaining all together and better than another quarter reporting high-risk drinking (defined as having 5 or more drinks in a 2-hr period) no more than once in the previous 2-weeks, these media reports have suggested a problem that is exaggerated and therefore unnecessarily pessimistic .

This does not, of course, suggest that the high-risk and dangerous drinking of a quarter of contemporary collegians should be overlooked or is of little concern; it is indeed a problem and is among the most significant public health issues facing contemporary college students. It does suggest, however, that most students are moderate in their behavior and exercise more than a modicum of restraint when it comes to making personal choices about alcohol and drinking.

This would seem to suggest that an important resource in the quest to change the campus drinking culture has gone untapped or at the least, under utilized, namely, the moderate drinker and the abstainer. What is it that affects the choices these students make? Why are they moderate when they drink or what factors influence their decision to abstain altogether? And even if John Jones or Mary Brown does decide to “drink a belly full of beer” on a Friday night but that may be one of a few times that is done in a semester, what factors affect his or her decision to remain moderate if not abstain on other occasions when alcohol is available and drinking is the perceived norm for the immediate group with which he/she is socializing?

The next chapter in an already significant text on collegiate drinking is about to be written. In a series of monographs on the topic of collegiate drinking entitled When They Drink, I explore the issues of why students who do drink, drink in the way they do (see Monograph at Now we need to look at what we can learn from “the rest of the students,” namely those who are moderate in their consumption or abstain altogether. I suggest that we ask these students to tell us their stories and that we then learn from them what affects the choice they make to abstain or remain moderate in their consumption when they choose to drink.

Like the story of the Good Samaritan who stopped to help a older gentleman looking for his car keys under a street light, when asked where he lost his car keys the gentleman pointed down a dark alley to his right and said, “Down there.” The Good Samaritan, looking puzzled, ask, “Then why are you looking here if you lost them way over there?” The older gentleman, glancing up with a perplexed look on his face said, “Because the light is better here!”

Perhaps we need to look at the stories of those students who are already doing what we would like to see their high-risk peers doing…decreasing the frequency of drinking episodes and reducing the quantity of alcohol consumed per occasion when choosing to drink. The light shining on the moderate drinkers and abstainers is nowhere as bright as that shining on the "binge drinkers," but perhaps we need to look where the answers are for the burning questions we ask.

What do you think?

Dr. Robert


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