Tailoring Prevention Strategies: Are There Subgroups That We Have Not Considered?

When campus alcohol abuse prevention professionals want to develop population-based programs, they often target students based on single risk factors such as race, gender, and previous drinking behavior. But those factors paint with a very broad brush. Recently, a team of MyStudentBody researchers led by Emil Chiauzzi, Ph.D., analyzed data from more than 20,000 first-year students who had completed the MyStudentBody Essentials Course to look for previously-unidentified risk categories that might help prevention professionals target programs more closely.

Using latent class analysis, a statistical technique that reveals subgroups (classes) based on correlations between characteristics, the team looked for connections between alcohol consumption and other factors, including the use of marijuana and prescription medications for nonmedical purposes, protective behaviors that mitigate the hazards of drinking, and the experience of negative physiological and behavioral consequences from alcohol use.

The analysis divided students into four groups, based on drinking risk:

1) Low-risk drinkers: 46%

2) Lower-intake drinkers with other identified risks: 20%

3) Moderate-risk drinkers: 14%

4) High-risk drinkers: 20%

The study confirmed that the majority of incoming students either don’t drink or are low-risk drinkers, that high-risk drinking groups are largely made up of white males, that social norms perceptions become more inaccurate as the level of high-volume drinking increases, and that the use of protective tactics to reduce the amount of alcohol consumed and/or the consequences of drinking fall with the amount of high-risk drinking.

But where the latent class analysis really showed its power was in identifying a possible category of students that’s as large as the group of high-risk drinkers (20% of the sample), and suffer consequences at nearly the same rate, despite peak blood alcohol levels that are far lower than those reported by high-risk drinkers.

Students in this group—the “lower intake drinkers with other identified risks”—are also nearly twice as likely as the low-risk drinkers to have used marijuana or prescription drugs for non-medical purposes in the past year (61% vs. 33% of the low-risk group), and more likely to have used drugs than even moderate-risk drinkers (48%). Perhaps most strikingly, 79% of this group are women.

The identification of this subgroup suggests some policy and program steps. First, it’s important to include drug use in prevention programming, and to assess students for drug use in any situation that would call for alcohol assessment. In particular, female students who enter the judicial/sanctions process or come to health services with alcohol-related physiological issues should be assessed for drug as well as alcohol use. Educational programs should teach protective tactics that help limit both drinking and its consequences, and to provide training in protective measures to women as well as men—targeting sororities, women’s teams, and other female-membership organizations. And social norms campaigns should address perceptions about drug use and its hazards, as well as those about alcohol.

For more suggestions, view the full MS PowerPoint presentation Dr. Chiauzzi delivered at NASPA AOD. (Be patient; the download may take a few seconds.)

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