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Perception May Affect Drinking by College Students

What they think peers are doing seems to matter, expert surmise,,

MONDAY, July 20 (HealthDay News) -- If college students knew their friends really weren't drinking as much as it might seem, they might cut back on alcohol, a new study suggests.

Researchers from Oxford Brookes University in England reviewed 22 studies that included nearly 7,275 students, most in the United States. The researchers divided the students into two groups: those who participated in intervention programs designed to help them decrease their alcohol consumption and students who didn't.

Interventions included education about the risks of drinking heavily, information about how much college students normally drink and education about their own drinking habits, including quantity consumed, caloric intake and money spent on alcohol.

Interventions involved several methods, including mail or Internet as well as face-to-face individual or group counseling.

Across the board, college students tended to be heavy drinkers, the study found.

Web-based and individual, face-to-face counseling were the most effective in curtailing drinking, whereas mail and group feedback had little impact on students' drinking habits, according to the study, published in the June 19 issue of the Cochrane Library.

"There were only a small number of good-quality studies that we could draw on to make this somewhat tentative conclusion," said study co-author David Foxcroft of Oxford Brookes University said in a news release from the Health Behavior News Service. "More research is definitely needed."

In three studies using Web feedback, 62 percent of the students reported a reduction in alcohol-related problems and a 1.2-point reduction in the Rutgers Alcohol Problem Index, a 23-item questionnaire geared to adolescents, the reviewers found.

After a three-month follow-up, 65 percent of the students reported that they were drinking less frequently.

Individual counseling also led students to drink less often. Two studies with a total of 217 participants found 63 percent of students reported drinking less frequently after the intervention.

Jeanie Alter, program manager and lead evaluator of the Indiana Prevention Resource Center at Indiana University's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, said she was surprised that group interventions were not more effective.

"I am a bit surprised by these findings simply because, by providing normative information to a group, I would have expected that it would provide a level of social support for refusal," Alter said in the news release. "A similarly minded group usually would back you up in your decision not to use."

The researchers said that peer influence appears to play a role in how much students drink but that students might believe that other students drink more than they actually do.

Interventions that bring perceptions more in line with reality could lead students to drink less themselves, they suggested.

"In the U.K., young people are drinking earlier and heavier than ever before," Foxcroft said. "Levels of alcohol consumption amongst 11- to 13-year-olds have almost doubled in the last 10 years or so."

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has more on drinking among college students.

-- Jennifer Thomas

SOURCE: Health Behavior News Service, news release, July 19, 2009

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