Nationally unique breathalyzer study shows most UNC-CH students don't drink alcohol, even on traditional 'party' nights
August 10, 1999
By KAREN STINNEFORD
UNC-CH News Services
CHAPEL HILL — A first-in-the-nation breathalyzer study involving 1,800 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students found that on average, 72 percent returned home with no alcohol in their bloodstreams.
Even on the traditional "party hearty" nights of Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 66 percent of students returned home with a .00 blood-alcohol concentration, according to a UNC Highway Safety Research Center study. On other school nights, the average was even higher — 86 percent.
The new, objective scientific data fly in the face of conventional stereotypes, which portray college students as heavy drinkers constantly seeking opportunities to imbibe.
"I'm not surprised at all by these results," said Dr. Rob Foss, manager of alcohol studies for the UNC Highway Safety Research Center and one of the project's co-directors. "Other breathalyzer studies we have done with drivers and recreational boaters show similar results — less drinking than is generally believed. We have substantial misperceptions about alcohol use in this country.
"Yes, most UNC students drink. But they don't drink most of the time, and they certainly don't get drunk most of the time. They simply don't drink nearly as much as everyone seems to think they do."
The study marks the first time in the United States that researchers have obtained breath measurements from college students as they returned home at night, said Lauren Marchetti, the project's other co-director. As a result, she said, center officials feel confident that their data offer reliable snapshots of ordinary student behavior.
Most studies of college-aged alcohol use rely on "self-reported" information, where students must recollect their drinking behavior. Such surveys don't provide a complete picture of alcohol use on campus, Foss said.
"Humans are not good at reporting precisely what happened two weeks ago," Foss said. "And alcohol is unique in that once you've had a couple of drinks, your perceptions and memory can begin to fade on you. I am convinced that what students report is influenced by what they think is the social norm."
Changing the erroneous perception of the norm — the widespread notion that Carolina students drink often, and drink solely to get drunk — is vitally important in influencing students' behavior, Foss said. If students believe their peers drink, they are more likely to drink, even if they don't particularly want to, he said.
"People go along with what other people are doing because they want to fit in — it's not a conscious choice, but it's a powerful factor at work in all our lives," he said. "If you believe people in a particular setting drink a lot, then that's subtle but strong pressure to do the same thing."
Since the breathalyzer study shows that most Carolina students don't drink a lot, Foss said, the challenge facing UNC-CH administrators is how to give students the facts to reduce drinking motivated by misperceptions.
That "reality check" will come in the form of a new campus campaign called "2 out of 3, .00 BAC." The campaign was designed by the UNC Highway Safety Research Center research team and will be administered by the UNC-CH Division of Student Affairs.
(BAC is an acronym for blood-alcohol concentration, the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream. In North Carolina, drivers are legally impaired if they have a BAC of .08 percent or higher.)
The campaign, primarily aimed at incoming freshman, uses posters, placards, stickers and small financial rewards to spread the word that 66 percent of Carolina students don't drink, or drink very little, even on weekend nights.
The campaign deliberately uses Carolina landmarks, eye-catching neon colors and clever double entendres to catch students' attention, said Dr. Susan Kitchen, vice chancellor for student affairs.
"There are two main goals we're trying to accomplish with the '2 out of 3' campaign. Our first goal is to share important information with students and the public — that the vast majority of Carolina students don't drink on a typical weekend night and we've got scientific, reliable data to prove it.
"The second goal is equally important. That is to reassure impressionable first-year students — who just left their homes and are eagerly seeking a new 'family' on campus — that they don't have to drink alcohol to find their niche here, because most of their classmates don't drink much, or at all, either."
Kitchen acknowledged that correcting the misperception of Carolina's drinking norm isn't easy, because by the time students enter college, they have been thoroughly indoctrinated with mass-media
"The alcoholic-beverage industry has effectively created in the minds of the public — and therefore in the minds of young people — the notion that whenever you are having fun, you are drinking," she said. "They don't say, 'go get drunk,' but they portray happy and beautiful people with a beer in their hands. It's almost a cultural truism in this society that drinking is equated with good times and fun."
Showing students that it's possible to have a good time without alcohol is one of the goals of Fall Fest, Carolina's alcohol-free block party for new and returning students. This year's festival runs Sunday (Aug. 15) from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. and will include free food, carnival games, music and entertainment. South Road will be closed near the Frank Porter Graham Student Union for the event.
Said Kitchen, "research shows that the more quickly students find their place on campus with friends and activities, the less likely they are to get involved in drugs and alcohol. And actively involved students are more successful academically."
Marchetti praised university leaders for their support of the breathalyzer study.
"It took an incredible leap of faith on the university's part to let us go out and collect these data," she said. "Nine out of 10 universities would have said 'no way' just out of fear of what we might find. Administrators here had tremendous guts to let us do this, and their support helped pave the way for funding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"Every campus has drinking, but even so, the support for this study was extremely encouraging and not at all what we would have found in many places."
The UNC Highway Safety Research Center study was conducted in October and November 1997. Center researchers interviewed 1,846 students between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. in front of UNC-CH residence halls and fraternity and sorority houses, and at several off-campus apartment complexes with large student populations. Of those, 1,790 students voluntarily provided a breath-alcohol measurement. Researchers conducted interviews on all nights of the week, Foss said, and there is no indication that drinkers were less likely to provide a breath sample.
The study was funded with $350,000 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the N.C. Governor's Highway Safety Program.
Note to media: Dr. Rob Foss and Lauren Marchetti, study co-directors, can be reached at 919-962-2203. Dr. Sue Kitchen, vice chancellor for student affairs, can be reached at 919-966-3879.
News Services contact: Karen Stinneford, 919-962-8415