Opinion: Clarion Call

Call. 33: Sober Policies on Drinking?

Just weeks after pledging a positive campaign to fight binge drinking at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the presidents of several UNC system schools have had a seeming change of heart. The News and Observer reported last week that the heads of UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Greensboro and UNC-Charlotte have signed on to a anti-drinking campaign that uses the mixed message that drinking can be done responsibly, while showing irresponsible drinking behavior among students. The new campaign is supported by the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities.

Like the failed and unpopular “Don’t Get Wasted” campaign used by UNC-Chapel Hill in 1997, the new campaign will portray students drinking to excess, thereby conveying the message that drinking is dangerous and prevalent among students. Instead of using a social-norms approach to the issue of student drinking — trying to normalize drinking habits among students by changing misperceptions surrounding alcohol use — the new campaign will further those misperceptions by targeting beer as a dangerous and potentially fatal poison.

“At Binge, we understand that sometimes you just need five or six drinks the night before that big test,” reads the advertisement for a fictitious malt called Binge Beer. “Who says falling off a balcony is such a bad thing?”
Last semester, UNC-CH used a series of similarly ironic advertisements for a brand of beer called “Ralph.” The ads depicted several alcohol-related events in which one drunken student was making a public nuisance of himself: vomiting on crowds at sporting events, passing out at bars and drinking excessively at the end of a beer bong. “It won’t get any better than this!” the advertisement read.

Those advertisements, as well as the anti-drinking campaign supported by the UNC campuses, are a far cry from the “2 out of 3—.00 B.A.C.” campaign proposed last month by UNC-CH. That campaign was proposed after a study by the UNC Highway Safety Research Center found that, contrary to popular belief, most students don’t get drunk or drink all of the time. Two out of three students tested on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights were found to have a .00 alcohol concentration in their blood. The campaign would use posters, placards, stickers and small financial rewards to display the study’s results on campus.

At least one expert on university alcohol policies, however, questioned the motives behind the “2 out of 3” campaign. Michael Haines, Health Enhancement Coordinator at Northern Illinois University, who spearheaded a successful social-norms campaign at NIU, said stressing positive drinking habits of students should be the goal of any social-norms campaign. That element, he said, is missing from UNC-CH’s campaign. “The norm at UNC-CH, as far as I can tell from this study, is that most students at UNC-CH don’t drink heavily,” Haines told Clarion, the Pope Center’s bimonthly journal on higher education.

The message that we should take from the study and push to students, says Haines, is not that students don’t drink, because that message is not believable nor is it true. Haines pointed out that the national average is that students drink an average of one night a week. Far more effective than stressing non-drinking levels at UNC-CH, said Haines, would be to stress that UNC-CH students are drinking safely and not excessively.