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Curbing Drinking on Campus

On college campuses across the nation, administrators are attacking the problem of binge drinking.

One new program is called "Social Norming." It's aimed at making students rethink their idea that binge drinking is normal.

On a rain-slicked road at Colgate University, Robert Koester's SUV hit a tree at high speed on November 11th.

News reports said, "Authorities were trying to determine if Koester was drinking at his fraternity house before the accident."

Seven students were in the vehicle. Four, including three young women who'd been offered a ride, were killed.

Despite all the publicity, all the pressure to curb alcohol use on campus, drinking to excess is still considered a rite of passage for students. Even at stately colleges like the University of Virginia (UVA).

"One of my friends was up all night puking. Another friend of mine got sexually assaulted," says Mariame Mitry, a sophomore.

"But it's kinda hard when everybody else around you just gets swept up in it," says Conor Sibley, a junior. "You'd feel a little ostracized."

Colleges have spent millions in publicity campaigns to scare kids sober. Yet a recent survey by the Harvard School of Public Health found that more than 40% of students admit to so-called binge drinking--defined as five drinks or more in one sitting for men and four or more in one sitting for women.

"Using shame, guilt, and threats to try and force them into certain behaviors," says Dr. James T. Turner, "simply doesn't work."

For colleges, it's not just lives on the line but liability. The prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was recently ordered to pay 6 million dollars to the family of Scott Krueger. Two years ago, the 18-year-old freshman drank himself to death at an MIT fraternity initiation.

So some college health officials are trying a dramatically different approach. It's called, "Social Norming." It's a public awareness campaign designed to convince students that binge drinking is the exception, not the norm, on campus--that, in fact, most students drink responsibly.

"The theory is that the misperception of their peer behavior actually drives behavior," says Turner, UVA student health director.

The campaign's message, spread through posters plastered everywhere--even in bathrooms--doesn't try to scare students or eliminate drinking altogether. Instead, it promotes the idea that you can drink less and still fit in.

"The misperceptions are clearly changing. In fact, sorority women are drinking 20% less-- we hope, as a result of our program," says Turner.

Some colleges have found an unlikely source of funding for the social norms program--the alcohol and beverage industry. The nation's largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch, is pouring $400,000 into campaigns promoting social norming.

"It was a natural fit for us--a natural evolution of what we've been doing all along to help promote personal responsibility, respect for the law, and to fight alcool abuse," says Francine Katz, a vice president at Anheuser-Busch.

But some critics says that's not right. "I think universities should not accept money from the industry for direct use for any alcohol-related program," says Dr. Richard Keeling, a critic of social norming. For Keeling, the beverage industry's involvement is cynical and is still ultimately aimed at selling alcohol to young people.

"There is really no study, no national trial that demonstrates they've actually had an effect on the consequences of drinking problems, like violence, sexual assaults, and accidents," says Keeling, "the things that really matter."

Few people expect that social norming will eliminate binge drinking, but supporters of the program say it's a good, sober, first step.

Turner says, "What we're doing is trying to encourage responsible and healthy behavior and people recognized that is our genuine intent. As healthcare providers, we're not enforcers. We're not the police. We just wan students to be safe."

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