Researcher: InBev Pushes Anti-Booze Program That's Destined to Fail



St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch (which is now, of course, part of the InBev conglomerate) has long been a font of carbonated sustenance to college kids across the United States, appealing to thirsty scholars and rabid game-day fans alike. Through it all, the company has encouraged kids to drink in moderation and publicly backed community programs preaching responsibility. 

Now, one public health researcher is calling out the beverage giant for bankrolling a social program that is ostensibly meant to combat underage drinking -- but in reality, he says, is doomed for failure.

How very convenient for a company that makes its money selling alcohol, don't you think?

Edward Ehlinger, a health expert at the University of Minnesota, is pointing the finger at InBev for helping launch the National Social Norms Institute, housed by the University of Virginia. The theory of "social norms" holds that people tend to overestimate the amount of alcohol abuse on campus; when impressionable young freshmen arrive, they'll soon realize binge drinking isn't rampant and adjust their own alcohol intake to fit the pattern, which ain't all that bad.

The basic message? Relax, folks. Campus debauchery is not the norm; most college drinkers are actually responsible! And since real life doesn't always imitate a Van Wilder film, let's keep it real.

To promote that message, in 2006, then-Anheuser-Busch funded the launch of the UVA institute, to the tune of $2.5 million.

One problem, says Ehlinger: The program is toothless, and A-B InBev knows it.

"By funding things that they know are not very successful, like social norms among college students...they look like they are fighting to lower college-age drinking -- good for PR -- while they don't decrease their customer base -- good for business," Ehlinger says.

InBev, whose executives this week were ranked No. 29 SportsBusiness Journal's list of most influential people in sports marketing, continues to fund the program at the University of Virginia, as well as other universities. It's also opened up preliminary talks to hook up the Social Norms Institute with another hefty donation, according to the institute's director, Dr. James Turner. He defended his program, claiming that ten years of social-norm marketing at the university (consisting largely of mounting stat-packed posters around campus) has produced real effects.

Turner points to surveys that purportedly show that drinking and driving has dropped by 85 percent, missing class after drinking has dropped by 80 percent, and alcohol-related injuries have dropped by 75 percent. He also said his institute is financially backed by health-related organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control.

But Ehlinger is hardly alone in his critique. Henry Wechsler, a Harvard researcher who published a landmark 1993 study that was the first to measure and define collegiate binge drinking, is also a skeptic.

"I have published on social norms campaigns and have found them ineffective in lowering drinking," Wechsler tells Daily RFT. "Social norms marketing campaigns appeal to the alcohol industry and to college administrators because they provide a feel-good message -- 'There is less drinking on a college campus than people think.' Despite the enthusiasm of social norms proponents and the industry, there is no solid scientific evidence that the technique works."

Wechsler cites one his own studies, conducted in 2004, that in some cases actually showed an increase of drinking on campuses with social-norms programs in place. And for his part, Ehlinger points to a 2007 study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, in which the researchers claim that many social norms programs operate with weak designs, don't include controlled comparison groups or otherwise have little effect on consumption levels.

In defense of the social normers, there is more recent data out there suggesting that social norms marketing is beginning to produce results, including this study, published a couple months ago out of Montana State University.

Turner, the director of the Social Norms Institute and a licensed physician, says naysayers should relax. "Dr. Wechsler hasn't read the latest stuff," he says. "People are pretty receptive to information about how they can make responsible decisions. When they find out that their drinking habits are not the norm, they want to get back to the norm," almost like a counter-intuitive, positive form of peer pressure, he says.

InBev did not respond to a request for an interview. But Ehlinger, for his part, isn't buying the science behind the keep-it-real philosophy. If you wanna talk aobut reality, he says, "the rates of high-risk drinking across the country remain high, despite the decades-long use of social norms. If the social norms approach is successful, it certainly hasn't made a big difference in the overall pattern of drinking by college students."

InBev, are you listening?


Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.