Evan Schwartz: Confessions of a binge drinker

Picture this: a college-aged girl, after way too many drinks, hanging her head in a toilet. The slogan: “Best night of my life.” This is not a scene from McFadden’s late on a Thursday night. It is an anti-binge drinking Public Service Announcement, designed to curb excessive drinking among college kids.

According to news reports, a recent Northwestern University study concluded that such ads are not only ineffective at curbing binge drinking, but may in fact encourage college students to party harder. The study says the shame-based campaign arouses feelings of guilt in viewers – guilt that translates into more drinking. This is hardly the way we should be communicating.

Now comes the full disclosure – I am a binge drinker. That is to say, according to medical science, I fall under the definition of someone who drinks to excess. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web site defines binge drinking as “for women, four or more drinks during a single occasion,” and “for men, five or more drinks during a single occasion.” The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism goes on to define that “single occasion” as two hours.

Do I consider myself an alcoholic? Absolutely not. The CDC agrees that most people who binge drink are not alcoholics or alcohol-dependent. But some facts about me make it easy to understand why I still fall into the category of binge drinker.

For one, I am a man, and the CDC reports that men are twice as likely to binge drink as women. More relevantly, I am a college student between the age of 18 and 22, the group with the highest proportion of binge drinkers, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. A 1997 national study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that nearly half of all college students surveyed admitted to binge drinking.

If that number is still accurate, fully half of the students at GW who drink are going to binge drink at some point this month, whether it is in their own room, or this weekend at a bar, or next week on spring break in the Caribbean.

So if binge drinking is such a huge problem among college students, why are shame and guilt being used as weapons against it? If these tactics are not effective, isn’t the next logical step… (gulp)… to open communication?

If anyone wants to effectively combat the problem of binge drinking, humiliation is not the way to go. Instead, the communicators – in the particular case of this ad, that would be the Liquor Control Board of Ontario – should try to foster a sense of open communication. Saying that underage drinking is illegal and binge drinking is dangerous does not make the problem go away, in the same way that humiliating someone who is binge drinking will not make that person stop.

Simply telling people who have a hangover that they should be ashamed of themselves is not effective; treating the source of the problem is. How many partying college kids even know that what they’re doing is considered “binge drinking?” Setting a realistic threshold, and making sure people are aware of what they are doing, may help kids keep their drinking totals down. Letting kids know that drinking to solve other problems is not appropriate or effective is better than shaming them into changing.

Showing a girl with her head in a toilet focuses on the consequences of the action, rather than trying to address the cause. Did I have five drinks last night because I was stressed? Or was it related to more deep-rooted issues: depression, anxiety, or a desire to escape real life?

A hangover is a reminder. The headache and the nausea are all the direct result of a conscious choice to drink to excess. But if a college student is out binge drinking for a purpose beyond having a good time, then splashing a shameful image across an advertisement may not do much to prevent another binge in the future. The focus should be on more communication, more resources for help, and more options to choose from other than shots or beers or cocktails.

The writer, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is a Hatchet columnist.

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