by David J. Hanson, Ph. D.
Colleges and universities across the US are using two popular but very different approaches in efforts to reduce the extent of alcohol abuse.
- One is an aggressive no-use, zero tolerance policy, especially toward the consumption or possession of alcohol by anyone under the age of twenty-one. It stresses vigorous law enforcement followed by strong penalties and commonly attempts to "scare 'em straight" by emphasizing, if not exaggerating, the extent of the problem and its severity. (see Zero Tolerance)
- The other is the social norms approach. It recognizes the reality of underage drinking and attempts to reduce the harm that can result from the misuse of alcohol. It stresses education --- the use of facts to correct the prevalent misperception that drinking and alcohol abuse are more common that they really are. This knowledge empowers students to abstain or to consume less rather than trying to conform to what they have falsely believed "everyone" is doing. (see A Proven Way to Reduce Alcohol Abuse and Best Kept Secret on Campus)
The evidence clearly indicates that social norms marketing is a very effective method to reduce alcohol abuse. Unfortunately, it also demonstrates that zero tolerance is not only ineffective by often counter productive. These two methods are based on diametrically opposed assumptions and their use is inconsistent with each other.
Astonishingly, many colleges and universities are using both simultaneously. This significantly reduces that ability of social norms marketing to be effective. Emphasizing or exaggerating the extent of drinking and drinking problems is clearly inconsistent with publicizing the truth and correcting misperceptions.
Catering to pressures from different constituencies and pressure groups may be politically wise for college administrators, but by doing so they sacrifice the effectiveness of their programs and fail to meet the needs of their students.
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