College Students Who Try to Minimize Drinking May End Up Drinking More

By May Wilkerson 08/07/15

Even if alcohol intake isn't curbed, strategizing consumption can still serve a purpose.

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College students’ attempts to minimize harms associated with drinking may have the opposite effect. Those who adopt “protective strategies” before a night of drinking may actually end up drinking more and facing more consequences, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle surveyed 694 undergraduate students and 131 of their friends a week before and after their boozy spring break. They answered questions about their drinking activities, negative consequences of drinking, like getting into fights, passing out, or shirking responsibilities. They were also surveyed about “protective strategies” they used to minimize harms, such as hangovers or accidents.

These protective strategies fell into three categories: “harm reduction” methods, like planning to go home with a friend; “limiting/stopping” strategies, like having a friend monitor your booze intake and tell you when you’ve had enough; and “manner of drinking” strategies, like drinking extra water and avoiding drinking games.

Researchers were surprised to find that students who employed more "harm reduction" and "limiting strategies" tended to drink more on that day, and faced greater consequences. However, students who employed "manner of drinking" strategies tended to drink less and face fewer consequences.

“The surprising result is that some types of protective strategies are associated with greater alcohol use and an increased number of consequences,” said study lead author Melissa A. Lewis.

But even if they don’t necessarily curb alcohol intake, these strategies may still serve an important purpose, she added. For example, designating a sober driver is an important harm reduction strategy that might save lives, even if it ultimately leads to more drinking. “A student may have drank more heavily and done embarrassing things,” she said. “However, they didn’t drive drunk.”

She said students should work on strategizing to reduce harms, while also reducing alcohol intake. “When working with college students, we need to focus on why specific strategies are being used,” said Lewis. “For example, it is important for (doctors) to know if someone indicates they are using a designated driver to reduce specific consequences (driving under the influence) but also in order to drink heavily.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.