SEATTLE — ON the second floor of the University of Washington's Guthrie Hall is a room with low lights, stereo speakers, and a long bar. Five black chairs, a wide mirror, neon lights, and rows of stacked glasses add to what might be a tavern on nearby University Ave. Outside the room is a sign: ``242 Bar Lab, Behavioral Alcohol Research Lab.'' Inside, as part of a course intended as a model for colleges across the country, students are given drinks with zero alcoholic content - alcohol-free malt drinks; vodka and tonics without the vodka.
``After they think they have been drinking alcohol for 45 minutes, they get more relaxed and outgoing and a party atmosphere develops,'' says Alan Marlatt, director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center. ``Then we tell them, `Guess what? You haven't had any alcohol' - it is the part of the course they find most surprising and revealing.''
For seven years, Marlatt and associate John Baer have been developing and evaluating a unique course in alcohol abuse prevention that examines social motivations in drinking. The course offers hands-on training and specific skills to change behavior.
``We try to change the assumptions students have about alcohol, what they believe it will do for them,'' says Baer. ``Most people have extremely positive views which are culturally, socially determined and not a product of anything to do with the drinks themselves.''
One myth is that the effects of alcohol are always a consequence of its chemical properties. After gathering in groups at the simulated bar, participants are told they are going to drink alcohol and be tested for its effects.
``The `placebo effect' teaches them how much of their behavioral change was due to expectancy and nothing else,'' says Marlatt.
The course examines the kinds of situations that often lead to drinking for people aged 17 to 27: social pressure, the ``party animal'' syndrome, dating, and academic anxiety.
``Many students don't even know why they begin their drinking ... often it's for the first time when they go away to school,'' says Marlatt. ``They can end up setting drinking patterns that stay with them for a long time.''
To break those patterns, Marlatt has students consider other ways to deal with the symptoms they usually drown in alcohol: sports to alleviate stress, meditation or other relaxation techniques for anxiety, for example. In so-called ``drink refusal training,'' Marlatt has participants do more than just be ready with reasons to refuse drinks. He makes them rehearse excuses.
``They have to hear themselves say the excuse, continue to be pressured, and continue until they succeed,'' he says.
SO far, two pilot courses have used student volunteers to develop curriculum for a 10-week course. Marlatt and Baer are preparing to offer the course for credit here next Spring. Funded by the National Institute for Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, the material is the culmination of separate, three- and four-year studies. to provide a model for courses at universities.
``His course is definitely unique in targeting high-risk college populations whose drinking we tend to discount because they are younger,'' says Kenneth Sher, associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri at Columbia.
Professor Sher quotes studies showing that between the ages of 18 and 25, those who drink do so more on average than at any other time of their lives. Further surveys indicate that 70-95 percent of students drink, and 15-25 percent are heavy or problem drinkers.
``He is getting [students] to question their own motivations and his results are quite promising,'' says Sher.
Marlatt ``thinks of the actual situations that will arise when students are on their own - that they are not in a vacuum after they leave the course,'' says Alan Stacy, a research psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. ``A lot of those running clinics think [alcoholism] is all genetic or a disease, or a physiological allergy. [His course] shows people they can take control.''
``I realized that sometimes I was drinking not because I really wanted to but because my friends were,'' wrote one woman after completing one pilot study in 1987. ``The bar lab was very helpful. I found I can function all right at parties without being blitzed.''
``I know now that `one more drink' may not be what I really need,'' wrote another. ``I used to truly believe that the more I drank, the better I'd feel. I guess I just had to see ... how wrong I was.''