NEWS- Busch league: UVA gets big bucks to ban binging

The company whose "we salute you" Bud Light commercials often thank people for minor accomplishments has made a major gift to the university that prides itself on taking a leadership role in fighting risky drinking.

"We salute you, University of Virginia," Anheuser-Busch spokesperson Francine Katz declared Thursday, September 21, in a Rotunda Dome Room press conference as she handed UVA president John T. Casteen III a check for $2.5 million. 

UVA will use the gift to help fund a new research group to be headquartered at the university: the National Social Norms Institute. 

Social norms? There's a clue in the press release: "The goal is to get students to emulate the positive behavior of the vast majority of students." In other words, most students aren't binge-crazy, and administrators want to get the word out.

In fact, according to UVA's office of Student Health, 20-25 percent of UVA students actually abstain from drinking alcohol, roughly equivalent to the national average of about 20 percent.

This is not to say that UVA has never had problems with binge drinking. In 1997, after fourth-year art history major Leslie Baltz died of head injuries from a fall down her apartment steps, her blood-alcohol content was measured at 0.429, about five times today's legal driving limit.

"Her friends thought they were doing the right thing," Casteen said. "We hope all students know the best thing is not to leave friends alone to sleep it off."

Director of Student Health James C. Turner says that it's impossible to prevent access to alcohol in a campus setting where people of all ages congregate. "The 21-year-old drinking age is virtually irrelevant," Turner says, but over the past couple of years, there are signs that the Social Norms approach may be working.

For instance, more students are seeking help for alcohol-related incidents without the fear of punishment from their parents or the police. As for more draconian prohibitions on campuses, Turner says schools that implement abolition policies do not prevent alcohol abuse but instead send students off campus to drink, meaning they often end up behind the wheel.

"Emergency Room visits are the same or going up, but we want that," Turner says. "The seriousness of the visits has gone down."

Social Norms marketing is a comprehensive program that uses student action to distribute information through posters, the Internet, and even the Stall Seat Journal. A monthly poster fixed to the back of bathroom doors in first-year dorms, the Stall Seat Journal provides accurate information and statistics about student drinking at UVA to debunk myths and promote healthy behavior. The goal of the Student Health-created publication is to shape how first year students think about alcohol at the university, and organizers hope the information will stay with them.

"During random interviews, students were able to remember specific facts and figures in May from posters that were put up in September," says fourth-year student and Social Norms marketing campaign assistant Paige Gottheim.

This isn't the big beer company's only recent offer to UVA. A $1.25 million gift helped establish UVA's Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center, which was dedicated August 26 in the coastal burg of Oyster, about 15 miles north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel on the Eastern Shore.

By next year, the UVA-headquartered National Social Norms Institute will be available as a resource center for UVA and five other schools: Georgetown University, Michigan State, Florida State, California-Fresno, and VCU.

"The Social Norms approach is head and shoulders above every other approach," Casteen says. "This is an everyday initiative that involves every student, all the time."

Some of the posters distributed by Student Health seem to say, "You're normal."