Stanford’s New Alcohol Policy Isn't Based On Much Research

One of the country's most prestigious research institutions doesn't seem to care about the data.

Sep 2 2016, 2:00pm

Will red solo cups make the cut? Image: Sophia Carter-Kahn

Last week Stanford University, my alma mater, announced a strict new alcohol policy in hopes to curb binge drinking.

The new policy bans hard liquor at on-campus parties, and restricts hard alcohol in undergraduate possession to containers smaller than 750 milliliters ("a fifth"). Lisa Lapin, the vice president of university communications, clarified that the goal is to prevent medical transports [i.e. trips to the hospital].

Universities across the country are looking for new ways to deal with dangerous binge drinking. If this new restriction at Stanford is successful, it would set a precedent for how universities across the country grapple with a seemingly insurmountable alcohol problem. There's just one catch: there's little data to suggest restricting bottle size can change college drinking culture.

Colleges have tried different strategies, from mailing parents flyers about alcoholism stats to policing campuses to break up parties. Dartmouth College, for example, implemented a hard alcohol ban last year. And the University of Virginia cracked down on liquor and Greek life on campus.

There's just one catch: there's little data to suggest restricting bottle size can change college drinking culture.

But their efforts don't seem to be working. Drunkorexia—skipping meals to have more room for alcohol—is on the rise. And administrative desperation to find some way to reduce alcohol consumption has continued.

It's also important to note that colleges are just starting to recognize their role in preventing sexual assault, a prevalent problem on campus. And while it's dangerous to conflate alcohol use and rape, the recent Brock Turner case at Stanford revealed yet again that 'party culture' is still being blamed for these incidents.

Amid this dialogue, Stanford's new policy stands on shaky foundation. Ralph Castro, director of the Office of Alcohol Policy and Education at Stanford, referred Motherboard to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's College Alcohol Intervention Matrix (AIM) report, which ranks the effectiveness of policies aiming to prevent harmful drinking practices on college campuses, and is a major component in Stanford's new policy.

And a Stanford professor who spoke with me (on the condition of total anonymity) said the 750ml policy was being referred to as an "alcohol tax, similar to the soda tax in New York." They argued: the cost of several smaller bottles of alcohol instead of one larger bottle will be prohibitive [since fewer stores carry small bottles] and would, theoretically, drive down overall alcohol consumption.

That's not evaluated in any AIM-inclusive studies. And drawing on my own experience as a student at Stanford, I would bet the average Stanford undergraduate, whose family makes over double the income of the median American family, could afford the extra alcohol.

Stanford is known for being a research institution. Image: Jawed Karim/Wikimedia

While studies suggest that people often underestimate how much they're drinking, there is no conclusive empirical research of how Stanford's new policy will work. "There's absolutely no evidence that smaller containers would reduce drinking at all, and certainly not binge drinking," said David Hanson, a sociology professor at State University of New York who has researched drinking patterns in young people for over 40 years. "All we're left with is speculation."

In fact, a 2013 study found that just removing a larger soda from a menu would lead customers to consume more soda to compensate for the absence of an option as large as what they want. According to the researchers conducting the study, consumers will "display what we call reactance—a rebelliousness, a determination to circumvent this policy, an attitude of 'I'll show them.'"

Though the odds and data don't favor the school's efforts, this isn't Stanford's first attempt at drastically curbing its school's drinking culture. An email sent to students last March threatened an all-out hard alcohol ban, similar to the one imposed at Dartmouth last year.

While medical transport numbers from binge drinking have declined at Dartmouth, there is some question if this is due to a reduction in drinking or an increase in students worried about the consequences of reporting alcohol poisoning.

As AIM notes, "an increase in emergency room transports may be a positive consequence" of developing an environment where students feel encouraged to seek help rather than suffer through the potentially devastating effects of a night of overindulgence.

In an email correspondence between Stanford Provost John Etchemendy and a student following the March all-campus email, the student wrote:

"Countless people I've talked to about this expressed their concern that a ban on hard alcohol would have little to no impact on drinking habits other than stigmatizing them more, making those with drinking issues or who are too intoxicated less likely to reach out for help out of fear of repercussions."

The Provost responded:

"Actually, there is extensive research that shows that the "countless people" you've talked to are just wrong. But that would be considering the facts, which people don't want to do."

I doubt that Stanford students will put all their concerns aside and follow the recommendations of an unproven methodology following a snarky "well actually" from our provost. Etchemendy later included a link to a single study, with a survey conducted when today's college students were still kids, that found that in the long-ago times before the early aughts' boozy comedy phase and Snapchat, "stronger enforcement of a stricter alcohol policy may be associated with reductions in student heavy drinking rates over time."

"It's flawed rationale and logic."

While the study is hardly convincing to today's students, there is something to be said for Stanford's willingness to try what others haven't and see how it goes.

But other academics aren't so supportive. "It's flawed rationale and logic," said Adam Barry, chair and associate professor of health education at Texas A&M University. He said Stanford should have adopted AIM policies that have already been identified as effective.

One crucial step Stanford seems to keep skipping in their efforts to better their student body is student body involvement. Out of the several dozen students I spoke with, only one was invited to participate in a dialogue about the policy, and she said it was largely a failed exercise. No one else received a response when they asked if they could get involved.

When I last spoke with Ralph Castro, I asked about the inclusion of student input leading to the 750ml restriction. He said that "many" undergraduates were involved in the creation of this policy. I noted that in a student's blog post on a meeting to recommend the policy described, only two undergraduates were invited. Castro said that "various students were involved in various ways over the years."

When pressed further, Castro hung up the call, apologizing later via email and explaining he was on his way to Canada, perhaps to hang out with our dramatically more lush neighbors to the north.

Binge drinking, and the risks associated with alcohol abuse, are a big problem on universities across the country. A problem that students should be invested in solving. But without the data, or collective understanding, policies like the new one at Stanford seem to be more about public image than the protection of our well-being.