According to our analysis of underage/college drinking
research over the past decade, the scientist whose work
ranks at #1 by total citations is Dr. Henry Wechsler, based
on 65 papers cited a total of 2,961 times. A dozen of these
papers are among the top 20 papers published in the past
decade and the past two years.
Dr. Wechsler is a Lecturer in
the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health at the
Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts. He
was the principal investigator of the School's College Alcohol
Study (CAS) during its existence. In the interview below, he
talks withScienceWatch.comabout his highly cited
Would you tell us a bit about your
educational background and research experiences?
I received a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Harvard University. My
interest has always focused on social factors in deviant or
self-destructive behavior. After a few years of research on mental health,
I decided to work in a broader area—public health. I wanted to
concentrate my work on youth, since the ability to change maladaptive
behaviors among young people offered the greatest benefit to society.
What influenced your focus on college
"Binge drinking produces problems for the drinker
and second-hand effects for classmates as well as
residents in the neighborhoods adjoining the
In the late 1960s I conducted studies of students in middle schools and
high schools, and despite the focus at that time on a drug "epidemic," I
found that alcohol was by far the drug of choice. College students offered
a population eager to be surveyed, and New England was a center of college
life. This enabled me to conduct several statewide and regional studies.
For me, alcohol use presented an intriguing topic because it was most
likely influenced by a variety of factors: genetic and familial,
psychological, economic, legal and political, and educational and
One of your big projects is the Harvard School of
Public Health College Alcohol Study (CAS). Would you talk a bit about
this project: how it was conceived, how it was carried out, and what
you've found over the years?
After studying colleges in New England and Massachusetts and finding that
heavy drinking was a part of college life, I wanted to conduct a survey in
a large representative national sample of colleges. The Robert Wood Johnson
Foundation offered me that opportunity by funding the first CAS survey, and
three more after that over a period of over 12 years. The ensuing rich data
set produced through the surveys on over 50,000 students at 120 colleges in
40 states allowed me to obtain a picture of the drinking behaviors at
American four-year colleges and universities, and to publish over 80
articles in peer-reviewed journals in fields ranging from psychology,
public health, medicine, sociology, economics, and education. I have been
able to disseminate these findings beyond the scientific community to
educators, policymakers, and legislators.
The findings described the type of students most likely to binge drink, the
centers of binge drinking at colleges, the type of schools with the most
binge drinking, and the factors in communities that fostered heavy
drinking. Many of my publications focused on the contribution of the
environment to this form of drinking. The alcohol environment includes the
density of alcohol outlets, the low prices and marketing practices, and the
alcohol policies and laws in the area where the schools are located.
What is the current trend for college
drinking—is it still on the rise?
Heavy alcohol use has been present at colleges since Colonial days. It
remains so. During the period of the College Alcohol Study, binge drinking
has remained at a remarkably consistent 44% overall, and has been level at
the 119 participating colleges, where it ranges from 1% to almost 80%.
There were two opposite trends during that time: a rise in abstention, and
a rise in some more extreme forms of drinking.
You've been focusing on trends in college drinking
for much longer than the recent decade covered in our analysis. Are
there any overall trends, and are you optimistic or pessimistic with
regard to reducing the use of illicit substances on college
When I look at the long-term drop in tobacco use, particularly in some
states, I am optimistic about what might happen if colleges address binge
drinking firmly and consistently. Look at what has happened to tobacco use
over the same period of time. Higher prices through taxation, enforced
smoke-free areas, and media-based educational programs have helped to
change attitudes and behavior.
What prevention/deterrence methods do you feel do
the most good in reducing alcohol consumption on college
"Heavy alcohol use has been present
at colleges since Colonial
Better town-gown cooperation is needed. Colleges can not do it alone. Towns
and cities need to monitor and regulate the alcohol environment that
surrounds most colleges. Limiting new alcohol licenses, curbing low-price
specials and "happy hours," and putting in place comprehensive policies and
regulations that are enforced will help to reduce the harms created by
binge drinking. Colleges need to get rid of their old drinking traditions,
control their fraternities and sororities, and divorce their athletic
programs from financial arrangements with the alcohol industry.
What would you like the "take-away lesson" about
your research to be?
Binge drinking produces problems for the drinker and second-hand effects
for classmates as well as residents in the neighborhoods adjoining the
college. It is not only the "alcoholic" whose drinking produces these
problems. Students who drink at the 5/4 level defining binge drinking in
the CAS (five or more drinks in a row at least once in the past two weeks
for men, and four drinks for women) account for most of the alcohol-related
problems and second-hand effects on campus.
Department of Society, Human Development, and Health
Harvard School of Public Health
Boston, MA, USA
Wechsler H, et al., "College binge drinking during
the 1990s: A continuing problem—results of the
Harvard School of Public Health 1999 College Alcohol
Study," J. Amer. Coll. Health 48(5): 199-210,
March 2000. Source:
Essential Science Indicators from
Henry Wechsler was featured in a Research Front Map on
Drinking" from the field of
Psychiatry/Psychology that was selected for mapping from
the list of Fast Moving Fronts for
Keywords: social factors, deviant behavior, self-destructive
behavior, alcohol, college students, Harvard School of Public Health
College Alcohol Survey, drinking behaviors, alcohol environment,
binge drinking, town-gown cooperation.