Websites use waistline factor to cut down on student drinking

Can Internet sites persuade image-conscious college students to drink less alcohol by tallying the "cheeseburger equivalent" of the calories they consume while drinking?

Scott Walters thinks so. He and researcher William Miller discovered a way to get heavy-drinking, belly-to-the-bar students to chop alcohol consumption in half – voluntarily. Their work at the University of New Mexico in 1998 led to the creation of "e-CHUG," a site deployed this fall to combat problem drinking at San Diego State University, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

The New Mexico research was based on mailed questionnaires that asked students to describe their drinking habits. Dr. Walters and colleagues responded with personalized data. Students found out, for instance, how much alcohol is in their blood when they drink, how much money they spend on drinking, and how many calories their drinks contain. They were also given information about genetic risk factors and how their drinking habits compared with the average student on campus.

Within a month, follow-up queries showed a solid drop in consumption, and the decline lasted for several years. Other campuses showed similar results.

Now those and other pioneering approaches are popping up on specialized Internet sites like Walters's e-CHUG (checkup to go) and MyStudentBody.com.

"We have athletes and women who avoid cheese on their hamburgers but would go out and have five to 10 beers," Walters says. "The e-CHUG website points out that, 'Hey, you drank the equivalent of 50 cheeseburgers last month.'

Another reason these methods work, he says, is that they "allow students to save face. We're not arguing with students, telling them what to do. We're simply presenting information ... and allowing them to process and act on it."

The hope is that the psychological techniques will accomplish what other efforts have not been able to: lower levels of alcohol abuse on campus. Nationwide, 44 percent of college students report regularly drinking excessively – a number that has remained steady for a decade, despite a spate of prevention programs.

One of the most sophisticated websites is MyStudentBody.com, which is run by Inflexxion Inc. in Newton, Mass. Like e-CHUG, it requires students to fill out an online questionnaire about their drinking patterns. But it is an interactive site, full of content designed to keep students coming back.

Much of this material is written from a student's point of view, to create a feeling that peers are giving the information about drinking's impact on grades, its secondhand effects, and ways to manage money and control anger.

The core of the site is a multilevel questionnaire soliciting information about students' beliefs about drinking (it makes me sexy), the risks they typically run (sometimes I drive while drunk), and lifestyle concerns (it might hurt my athletic performance). The site responds in a nonjudgmental way and customizes the options for each student.

It also features the seemingly frivolous. On the website's main page is an answer for inquiring readers who want to know what causes "that not-so-cute tummy" many call a beer belly.

But maybe the beer-belly explainer isn't really so frivolous. After all, students might moderate their drinking if they knew it threatened to squeeze them out of their low-slung jeans. Then again, if appearance isn't an issue, what about money?

"Is your wallet a lot lighter than it used to be? Do you stare in horror at dwindling bank statements?" the website intones. Then, as one of nine ways to cut costs, it lists how to "economize your social drinking": "Don't spend too much on alcohol. Mixed drinks tend to be much more expensive than beer, so many students stay away from them."

None of this, of course, is the sort of hard-core antidrinking message that will appeal to many campus administrators or parents. Yet it may be a happy medium between generalized prevention efforts and expensive individualized interventions.

Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. and the University of Florida at Gainesville have both signed up for a year's worth of the MyStudentBody.com service. The cost is between 25 cents and a dollar per student, a company spokesman says. Another 24 campuses are nonpaying test sites.

One of the key reasons Harvard signed up is the website's ability to reach students where they are – online, says Richard Kadison, chief of mental health services.

"The Web works when we don't and students do – at 10 to 11 at night when someone may be pondering whether their roommate has an alcohol-abuse problem," he says.

It's the "certificate of completion" feature that appeals to Tavis Glassman, coordinator of the alcohol and drug resource center at the University of Florida. The hundreds of students who get caught violating alcohol rules can now be required to prove that they completed the website's questionnaires.

The same feature could also be used to compel other high risk groups – such as fraternity members or athletes – to educate themselves, though this isn't specifically in the works in Florida.

There are a number of health counselors on his campus, but Mr. Glassman is the only person directly responsible for stemming the tide of alcohol abuse. He knows the Internet approach is experimental, but he's optimistic enough to pay for MyStudentBody.com with his own tiny budget.

Individual responses will be anonymous and confidential, Inflexxion officials insist. But college officials are looking forward to receiving campuswide data so they can better assess alcohol consumption and its impact.

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