College students respond best to anti-heavy drinking campaigns that focus on things such as the positive health outcomes associated with lowering alcohol intake, a team of American researchers report in a new study.
In the U.S., college students typically maintain some of the nation’s highest rates for alcohol consumption and involvement in dangerous drinking behaviors. In a study published in February 2015 in the British Journal of Health Psychology, researchers from three U.S. institutions examined the effectiveness of various public health approaches to reducing college students’ involvement in heavy drinking, a behavior noted for its impact on the odds that any given alcohol consumer will develop a diagnosable case of alcohol use disorder (alcoholism and/or alcohol abuse).
In the U.S., over 59 percent of all fulltime college attendees between the ages of 18 and 22 consume alcohol in any given month, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports. Thirty-nine percent of students in this age range qualify as binge drinkers by at least occasionally consuming enough alcohol to reach a point of legal intoxication within approximately two hours. In addition, about 12.7 percent of all fulltime college attendees between the ages of 18 and 22 qualify as heavy drinkers by exceeding the daily or weekly standards for moderate alcohol intake at least once a month.
Generally speaking, 18- 19- and 20-year-old college students have a smaller chance than their older counterparts of consuming alcohol in any amount, consuming enough alcohol in short drinking sessions to qualify as binge drinkers or maintaining a daily or weekly level of alcohol intake that crosses the threshold of heavy drinking. Men enrolled in college drink alcohol a bit more often than their female counterparts. They also maintain substantially higher rates for both binge drinking and heavy drinking. College students drink more often than their age peers not enrolled in college and also have a higher rate of involvement in alcohol binging and heavy alcohol consumption. Despite these facts, the overall binge drinking rate among college students has declined in recent years.
At the low end, a heavy drinker exceeds gender-specific recommendations for daily or weekly alcohol intake at least once a month. Extreme heavy drinkers exceed these recommendations at least twice a week. For men, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) sets a heavy drinking threshold of at least five drinks in one day and 15 drinks in one week. For women, the NIAAA sets a threshold of at least four drinks in one day and eight drinks in one week. In this context, the term “drink” applies to any serving of an alcoholic beverage that includes 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol.
A person who drinks heavily just once a month increases his or her lifetime chances of developing alcohol use disorder (alcoholism/alcohol abuse) to roughly 20 percent. Once-weekly heavy drinkers increase their lifelong odds to approximately 33 percent. A person who drinks heavily two or more times per week has a 50 percent lifelong rate of alcohol use disorder exposure.
In the study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, researchers from Dartmouth College, the Minnesota Department of Health and the University of Connecticut used input from 124 college students to help identify the public health approaches most likely to lead to a reduction in heavy drinking on university campuses. The researchers asked all of these students to register their responses to a series of scenarios designed to discourage excessive alcohol intake. Some of the scenarios emphasized the negative health outcomes of heavy drinking, while others emphasized the positive health benefits of not drinking heavily. In addition, some of the scenarios emphasized the negative impact of heavy drinking on social participation and interaction.
The researchers concluded that the college students responded best (i.e., reduced their future intention to drink heavily) when exposed to two of the approaches: scenarios that emphasized the positive health benefits of not drinking heavily and scenarios that emphasized heavy drinking’s negative impact on social participation and interaction. The students did not respond well to scenarios that emphasized the negative health outcomes of drinking heavily. Crucially, the desired responses to the two influential anti-heavy drinking scenarios were strongest among those students who had previously reported relatively high levels of alcohol intake.