University Uses 'Social Norming' To Curb Drinking The number of alcohol-related deaths is on the rise at colleges nationwide. But at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, no student has died from intoxication or an accident linked to drinking since 1998. The school's prevention program relies on peer health educators and honesty about the effects of alcohol.
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University Uses 'Social Norming' To Curb Drinking

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University Uses 'Social Norming' To Curb Drinking

University Uses 'Social Norming' To Curb Drinking

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This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning. It is Thursday morning, which is when we look at your health. And today we'll examine an effort to make drinking on campus a little less common. At colleges across the United States, the number of alcohol-related deaths is on the rise. But at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, no student has died from intoxication or an accident linked to drinking since 1998. NPR's Brenda Wilson reports on what UVA is doing to make college kids safer.

BRENDA WILSON: The campus of the University of Virginia is a small town in a small town's downtown. This fall, thousands of first year students are experiencing the wonderful headiness of being on their own for the first time, 18-year-olds mingling with 21-year-old students who have a right to alcohol.

Mr. ROBERT WAYNEFIELD (Graduate Student, University of Virginia): It's just something that you are constantly presented with in all of your groups of friends...

WILSON: Robert Waynefield remembers arriving on a campus as an 18-year-old student thinking he had to drink if he wanted to fit in.

Mr. WAYNEFIELD: You may be lucky enough to find a group of people that don't drink, but you will be like an island amongst the drinkers if you're the only people not drinking.

WILSON: UVA, like most colleges, bans alcohol on campus and in the dorms. But Dr. Jim Turner, the director of student health, says it's virtually impossible to keep alcohol away from underage students.

Dr. JIM TURNER (Director of Student Health, University of Virginia): We have 20,000 students here. Twelve thousand of them don't even live on our campus. So unless you are going to put a policeman at the front door of every single apartment, fraternity, or sorority, how on earth can you keep young people from using alcohol in the privacy of their own home?

WILSON: The University developed a prevention program recommended by national health experts that reaches out to all students, targets high-risk behavior, and offers personal counseling as well. The hallmark of it is called social norming. That is correcting student ideas about what other students really do, how much they actually drink.

Dr. TURNER: Perceptions of what your peers do are very, very powerful motivating factors. And misperceptions can be just as powerful.

WILSON: A recent survey found that 27 out of a hundred UVA students don't drink at all. A third would be considered moderate drinkers, people who have one to three drinks at the most in an evening, and not all evenings. A fifth have serious problems with alcohol. So the university's overall strategy is truth-telling. They want students, for example, to understand what happens when they drink.

(Soundbite of student festival)

WILSON: Soon after first year students arrive, there's HooFest. On this day, a rainy outdoor festival that lures several hundred students with food and music.

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi. Everybody, please stick around because AVP is performing next. Also there's a really easy game over there with fun, awesome prizes that no one has taken advantage of, so do that.

WILSON: One game was designed to teach students how to keep track of how much they're drinking. They challenged in this instance Turner to pour the amount of liquid he thought equaled to one bottle of beer into a giant plastic cup, the sort you see at a college keg party. That size cup turns out to hold at least one-and-a-half beers. Next Dr. Turner tried his hand at guessing how much liquid a shot glass holds.

Dr. TURNER: Oh, my gosh, I did a bad, bad job.

Ms. JULIA VILLAGELIU (Student, University of Virginia): It's not too bad.

Ms. JESSICA MCCAULEY(ph) (Student, University of Virginia): It's OK.

Ms. VILLAGELIU: But you've got a chance...

Ms. MCCAULEY: You want a key chain?

Dr. TURNER: I'd love one. But do you find that a lot of people underestimate how much it takes to fill up that?

Ms. VILLAGELIU: Oh yeah, definitely.

WILSON: Twenty-one-year-old Jessica McCauley and 22-year-old Julia Villageliu are trained peer health educators.

Ms. VILLAGELIU: I think students expect that we are going to tell them not to drink, but we are actually just accepting the reality that a lot of college kids do drink under the age of 21. And they do it in unsafe settings because they have to hide it. So we just want them to have better information and to know that they can come talk to us if they have concerns about a friend drinking too much, themselves drinking too much, just wondering about their general safety and their BAC.

WILSON: You hear a lot about BAC, or Blood Alcohol Content, levels at the University of Virginia. At HooFest, first year students are handed a card, a blue one for the guys, a red one for the girls. Based on how much they weigh and how much they drink, students can figure out what their blood alcohol content is. First years Robert Chapman(ph) and Massy Green(ph) agreed telling students not to drink has no effect.

Mr. ROBERT CHAPMAN (Student, University of Virginia): Not a bad thing.

Mr. MASSY GREEN (Student, University of Virginia): I agree with Robert. I don't think that, I mean, it's like 18 to 21-year-old kids are going to do, like, what they want to do, you know what I mean? So, I think all you have to do is just stuff like this, make sure they know like ahead of time, like, if they're going to do it just to make sure to be safe about it.

WILSON: They hold up blood alcohol content cards as the main things they have gotten out of coming to HooFest, and...

Mr. ROBERT CHAPMAN: I enjoyed the food mostly.

WILSON: HooFest seems like a long time ago for Robert Waynefield. Now a 21-year-old graduate student, he sounds like a man waking up from a four-year hangover who's done all the things binge drinkers do.

Mr. ROBERT WAYNEFIELD: Getting into fights with people when you've had too much, vomiting in public, public urination, unprotected sex, the whole nine yards of just horror.

WILSON: Last semester when a professor asked for volunteers for a project at UVA's Center for Alcohol and Substance Education, Robert signed up as a way to use his data analysis skills and confront his own personal demons. He's now part of a student group trying to lessen the impact of drinking during those big occasions like football games, Halloween.

Mr. WAYNEFIELD: They're trying to protect you from yourself basically. They have a lot of things in place to get you home safely so that you don't drunk-drive. They have officers stationed and rescue squads stationed and everything ready to go in case something bad happens.

WILSON: The really big event is in the spring, the Foxfield Races, when all the students dress up and drinking starts early in the day, which is when another member of the group, 21-year-old Matthew White, got his wake-up call.

Mr. MATTHEW WHITE (Student, University of Virginia): I had a fraternity brother. We were pledging my fraternity and the first year of college. He ended up in a coma with a BAC of 0.41, I think. It was just a big reality check.

WILSON: The friend survived because there's one lesson that's drilled into the students.

Mr. WHITE: A lot of students at UVA know some of the key signs for alcohol poisoning, and I don't think anybody's afraid to call 911 in case of an emergency.

WILSON: And that's working. A student survey shows visits to the emergency room are up. Not for situations like the one White confronted, mainly for minor scrapes and falls associated with drinking. Then there's the Stall Seat Journal, funny educational posters plastered in a place no one can avoid, inside bathroom stalls. The posters change often and cover everything: relationships, facts about the college, and statistics that dispel myths about alcohol.

Mr. WHITE: One of the statistics used to be something like, 90 percent of first years don't drink and drive. And I remember when I was a first year, we used to say the other 10 percent are the ones that have cars.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WILSON: Go ahead and laugh. But that survey of students shows the proportion who say they have driven while intoxicated is down by more than half since this program started. UVA is viewed as a leader, but other experts prefer programs that focus on rules and enforcement, clamping down on fraternities that serve alcohol and closing local bars that promote drinking among students. UVA Student Health Services Director James Turner fears such policies just push students away.

Dr. TURNER: I do believe that you can educate young people so that if they're around alcohol and they choose to use, they can do so in a much more responsible way and minimize the risk of being hurt by it.

WILSON: While he doesn't endorse underage drinking, Turner says UVA's program keeps them alive and helps them reach a point in their lives when they won't abuse alcohol. Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And that's "Your Health" for this Thursday morning.

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