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Rethinking Drinking: Incorporating Best Practices into Work with UW Students

glass with ice and alcoholThe University of Washington has long been a leader in the development and evaluation of prevention programs and intervention efforts targeting risky alcohol use among college students. In fact, researchers at the Addictive Behaviors Research Center (ABRC) in the Department of Psychology and the Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors (CSHRB) in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences have developed prevention approaches associated with reductions in drinking and related consequences for students who make the choice to drink.

More than ever before, the University of Washington is finding ways to bring these evidence-based approaches to our student body (including a year-long collaboration between Health and Wellness in the Division of Student Life and providers at Hall Health). These approaches incorporate a great deal of information that could result in students thinking differently about their use (if they have made the decision to drink) and could reinforce the decision to abstain (if they have made the decision to avoid alcohol use). 

Some surprising (or often misunderstood) information includes:

Expectancies

  • The social or interpersonal effects of alcohol are more due to expectancies and the setting someone is in than what a person is drinking.  Research here at the UW shows that students told they're receiving alcohol and yet actually receive a non-alcoholic drink become more talkative, outgoing, social, friendly, and confident.

What is a drink?

  • If a student sets a limit (i.e., determines not to exceed a set number of drinks), it's important to consider what counts as "a drink."  A cup or glass with more than one shot in it is more than one drink, and this often gets overlooked.

The rate of sobering up

  • People burn off alcohol ("oxidation") at a constant rate of .016% per hour.  This means that a person at a blood alcohol level of .080% (the legal limit for those over 21) will take five hours to reach a .000% blood alcohol level.

Alcohol affects men and women differently

  • A man and woman of the same weight who drink the same amount of alcohol over the same amount of time will get to different blood alcohol levels (in fact, the woman will get to a higher blood alcohol level).   

Tolerance

  • We have known for years that tolerance means it takes more of a substance for someone to feel the expected effects.  We've also known that tolerance does not mean a person gets less intoxicated (i.e., blood alcohol level will be the same as if the person did not have tolerance).  Recent research has shown, however, that tolerance can actually be impacted by setting (i.e., where a person is).  In response to repeated exposure to cues associated with drinking (e.g., a person's room or a set of friends), the body will (in time) prepare to receive alcohol, such that if a person drinks the same amount in the absence of those cues, it will have a much more significant effect.  In other words, a person who has tolerance in one setting may not carry that tolerance to a different setting.

Alcohol's biphasic effect

  • When we ask what happens when people start losing a "buzz" after drinking, we often hear, "they drink more." When we ask if they ever get that same "buzz" back, we consistently hear "no."  What is felt instead?  The "drunk" part.  Scientifically, there's an explanation for why this is.  Research shows that after people exceed a particular blood alcohol level, the effects of alcohol start to change, such that the positive feelings people get feel less positive and the depressant effects get more pronounced.   This means that if a person goes up to but does not exceed this point, he or she can experience a much less risky night.

In prevention and intervention efforts at the University of Washington, it is always made clear that it is illegal to drink under the age of 21, and that the best way to avoid all unwanted consequences associated with drinking is to abstain. Research focusing on the development and evaluation of strategies successful at reducing alcohol use and related consequences continues at UW, as do efforts to bring those successful approaches to the student body. 

For more information about alcohol abuse prevention and intervention efforts on campus, students can contact UW's Health and Wellness Student Life at livewell@u.washington.edu or 206-543-6085. 

Resources

See Hall Health's other articles on alcohol and university life:

 

Authored by: Jason Kilmer, PhD, Assistant Director of Health and Wellness for Alcohol and Other Drug Education, Research Assistant Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

Reviewed by: Hall Health Center Mental Health Clinic staff, January 2014