September 18, 2012

Cornell Students Overestimate How Much Their Peers Abuse Alcohol, Survey Finds

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Gannett Health Services officials expressed concern that there is a mistaken perception that high-risk drinking is widespread at the University, citing survey results showing that Cornell students drink about as much as most college students.

“There tends to be a perception that high-risk drinking is widespread at Cornell, but the majority of students are not drinking or tend to drink in moderation,” said Tim Marchell ’82, director of mental health initiatives at Gannett Health Services.

According to a survey conducted in the spring, 30 percent of students believe it is acceptable to “black out” occasionally. In comparison, 70 percent of students said that they think  most Cornellians believe it is okay to black out.

“It’s pretty clear, just from that, that there is a cognitive disconnect when it comes to the drinking culture on campus,” said John Mueller ’13, who is a member of the National College Health Improvement Project — a Dartmouth-led initiative launched in 2011 that aims to curb high-risk drinking on college campuses.

The survey also showed that 27.3 percent of Cornell students reported abstaining entirely from alcohol consumption, while 45.6 percent of students who do drink said they consume four or fewer drinks per night.

These numbers are comparable to national averages, according to Jennifer Austin, communications specialist at Gannett.

According to the survey, 27 percent of Cornell students reported typically consuming five or more drinks each time they drink. The results were also comparable to national figures, which indicated that, in the fall of 2011, 28.7 percent of students nationwide reported drinking five or more drinks per session.

The survey also reported that, on average, Cornell students who consume alcohol have an average blood alcohol content of .06 on days they drink –– a number that is below the legal limit to drive. This figure is just below the national BAC level of a student on a day he or she drinks, .07, according to a National College Health Assessment study in 2011.

With more than 3,000 respondents and a 64-percent response rate, the survey, Marchell said, had a “very representative” sample.

“A lot of students are doing things right,” Austin said.

Still, Marchell said, reducing students’ alcohol consumption remains a top priority.

“Our focus is harm reduction,” Marchell said. “We know that many underage students drink, but we want them to do so in low-risk ways.”

Marchell added that drinking patterns among Cornell students have remained “relatively unchanged over time, and they’re consistent with the averages for other campuses.”

“That also means that, as on other campuses, there are significant problems,” he said.

According to Marchell, surveys measuring alcohol consumption, which NCHIP conducts on a bi-annual basis, will help the University analyze whether its policy changes effectively reduce high-risk drinking and the harms associated with it –– including memory loss, missed classes and, potentially, sexual and verbal abuse.

Marchell said that, because “students in the Greek system tend to drink at levels significantly higher than non-Greek students,” the University enacted a number of alcohol-related policy changes within the Greek system last fall. The changes included banning first-year students from Greek events where alcohol is served and forbidding new members in Greek houses from consuming alcohol at Greek events during the first six weeks of the spring semester.

Between the spring of 2011 and 2012, high-risk drinking — defined for males as consuming at least five drinks and for females as four drinks in one sitting — decreased by three percent among first-year Greek students, according to the survey. In the same time interval, high-risk drinking increased by five percent among non-Greek first-year students, the surveys found.

Marchell said that it is still too early to draw conclusions from the survey data about the effect of the University’s change in policies on student drinking.

“In order to assess whether there’s real change from policies or other strategies, we’ll need more data to determine if these are fluctuations or reflect actual changes in Greek versus non-Greek drinking behavior,” he said.

In the meantime, NCHIP is taking a “social norms approach” — trying to change people’s misperceptions of their peers’ drinking behavior — to reduce high-risk drinking and alcohol-related harms, according to Marchell.

In the same vein, last spring, NCHIP introduced the Cayuga’s Watchers initiative, a program that will send anonymous students to monitor parties at Cornell for health emergencies.

This month, Marchell said, NCHIP also launched “Target Safety,” a campaign that encourages low-risk drinking through posters that advise students to “skip the shots” and “stick to the buzz,” as well as offering suggestions for iPhone apps that track one’s BAC throughout the night.

Mueller said the group’s campaigns are necessary given the disparities between perceived and actual drinking behaviors on campus.

Original Author: Erin Ellis