An Erroneous and Misleading Report on College Student Drinking & Drugs from the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA)
The Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) has published a report 1 and press release on college students' substance abuse that grabbled headlines across the country. It charged that
- Almost one quarter of college students meet medical criteria for substance abuse or addiction,
- Binge drinking has been increasing,
- There was a dramatic increase in drug abuse, and
- College administrators have been accepting the status quo.
If true, these statements would be cause for great personal and public alarm. Fortunately, they are completely and demonstrably false.
CASA has a long record of distributing faulty reports about alcohol and drug usage. Drs. Jennifer Bauerle and James C. Turner of the University of Virginia examined the report and found that it, too, was misleading and full of false assertions.
Their analysis 2 demonstrates that in reality:
- Addiction to alcohol is lower among
college students than the general
population and age-matched non-college cohorts.
- Frequent binge drinking among
college students has leveled off and
remained steady since 2002.
Illicit and prescription drug use, which remains at relatively low rates, have increased among all categories of young people. The lowest rates of increase are among college students, whose usage is 50-75% lower than non-college students of the same age.
There is much evidence, contrary to the report, of the commitment and activities of college administrators and trustees to deal with these important issues.
I. CASA used unreliable data that exaggerated alcohol abuse among students, ignored the fact that rates of alcohol addiction and the abuse of most other substances by college students are actually lower than among their non-college peers, ignored the fact that substance abuse has clearly declined among college students in recent years, and ignored the strong evidence of organized and concerted efforts by administrators to reduce the problems of substance abuse. Of course, by doing this, the organization was able to issue an alarming report that could justify its agenda.
To generate their frightening statistic that almost one-quarter of college students meet the medical criteria for substance abuse or addiction, CASA used data from an in-depth clinical interview schedule that was mis-used in a survey instrument that provided no means of using feedback to learn the context and meaning of responses as required for validity. This misuse can be expected to lead to over-reporting and it apparently inflation of the real level of addiction.
A primary reference used by CASA in support of its charge was a study 3 that found alcohol addiction to be lower among college students than among their non-college peers. CASA ignored this important finding, the proper reporting of which would have clearly undermined its doomsday assertion.
II. CASA's second major misrepresentation is that frequent alcohol bingeing is increasing. It used as its source a private survey 4 that found frequent binge drinking to have increased between 1993 and 2001 but it ignored the federal National Survey of Drug Use and Health 5 finding of no increase in frequent binge drinking over the years since that time.
Important is the fact that CASA used the federal study a number of times in other sections of its report.
Bauerle and Turner emphasize that CASA's selective reporting of six year old data creates the impression of a worsening problem on campuses although federal and other research indicates exactly the opposite is true.
III. The third major misrepresentation is CASA's false claim that drug abuse among college students has been "skyrocketing." The study it cites in support of that assertion actually shows that drug use is increasing among college students at a lower rate than among their non-college peers.
As Bauerle and Turner note, the real question isn't not why alcohol use is increasing among college students but what is it about the college environment or college students that provides relative protection against drug use.
IV. CASA charges that college administrators have an "acceptance of a status quo of rampant alcohol and other drug abuse." Bauerle and Turner provide specific evidence to refute this charge. It appears that CASA made little or no effort to determine if its charge was correct -- which it isn't.
By promoting and reinforcing the false perception that "everybody" is bingeing and abusing drugs on campuses, CASA actually contributes to the problem.
That's because most students falsely believe that most other students are engaging in these undesirable behaviors and feel compelled to conform to this image in order to belong and be accepted.
When the actual lower numbers on their campus are publicized students are relieved and feel empowered to use less or to abstain. This has been demonstrated repeatedly on campuses across the country.
By issuing reports that blatantly exaggerate the serious problem of substance abuse on campus, CASA actually contributes to the problem.
Earlier CASA reports have similarly been riddled with erroneous data and misleading assertions. For example:
- Bauerle, J. & Turner J.C. An outbreak of health? Getting out the truth about social norms on college campuses. Peer educator, 2008 (April/May), 5-7. Bauerle and Turner's critique can be found at socialnorms.org/pdf/SN_ArticleNSNI.pdf
- 1. National Center on Addition and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.Wasting the Best and the Brightest: Substance Abuse at America's Colleges and Universities. NY: National Center on Addition and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 2007.
- 2. Bauerle, J. & Turner J.C. An outbreak of health? Getting out the truth about social norms on college campuses. Peer educator, 2008 (April/May), 5-7. Available at socialnorms.org/pdf/SN_ArticleNSNI.pdf
- 3. Knight J.R., Wechsler H., Kuo M., Seibring M., Weitzman E.R. & Schuckit M.A.
Alcohol abuse and dependence among U.S.
college students. Journal of Studies on
Alcohol, 2002, 63, 263-268.
- 4. Wechsler, H., Lee, J. E., Kuo, M., Seibring, M., Nelson, T. F., & Lee, H. Trends in college binge drinking during a period of increased prevention efforts: Findings from 4 Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study surveys: 1993-2001.
Journal of American College Health, 2002, 50(5), 203-217.
- 5. Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Services Administration. National Survey on Drug Use and Health Report. Underage alcohol use among full-time college students: 2002-2005. Washington, DC: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Issue 31.
- 6. American College Health Association.
The American College Health
Association National College Health
Assessment, Spring 2003,
2004 & 2005, n.d. American College Health Association.
The American College Health
- Perkins, H. Wesley (Ed.) The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Substance Abuse: A Handbook for Educators, Counselors, and Clinicians. Jossey-Bass (ISBN 0-7879-6459-X) This authoritative handbook, which is the most comprehensive guide available, helps practitioners apply social norms marketing techniques in diverse populations (students, parents, young non-college adults, etc.) in different environments (middle school, high school, college, homes, or an entire state) with different behaviors (alcohol consumption, tobacco use, effective parenting, pro-social actions, etc.) Please note: This website receives no benefit whatsoever from the sale of this book
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