Flickr photo by Andrew GordenSan Diego State University
Two Republican senators have lambasted a half-million-dollar grant to San Diego State University researchers who are studying whether placing certain health messages on menus might persuade drinkers to imbibe less.
U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., last week put out their third report highlighting what they consider 100 examples of misdirected spending on "questionable goals" in the federal government's $862 billion stimulus bill.
The report sneers at the fact that San Diego State researchers will conduct some of their field experiments on subjects experiencing "various levels of natural drunkenness" in and around the campus, which is frequently named one of the nation's top party schools.
"Can people at bars be persuaded of the benefits of moderate drinking?" the report asks. "Researchers at San Diego State University think so, as they plan to spend almost half a million dollars to research whether better nutritional and alcohol-content labeling will affect consumption of alcoholic beverages."
Principal investigator James Lange, who is coordinator of alcohol and other drug initiatives for the university, defended the study as a necessary precursor to future efforts at making policy that might require alcohol-content labeling on restaurant menus.
"Frankly it surprised me, and even seeing the report it wasn't clear to me what their criticism of the study was," Lange said.
"We've made great strides in reducing the rate of drunk driving in the U.S., but over the last several years the decline has not been progressing, so there's quite a number of researchers out there looking for ways to move the needle and keep reducing the number of deaths on the highways that are entirely preventable."
The main goal of Lange's research is to test the impact of different types of messages and information on drinkers' alcohol intake, particularly at restaurants and bars. The experiment tests an approach to alcohol that is similar to posting the calorie content of belly-busting dishes on restaurant menus.
His experiment is in an early phase. Researchers set up laptops on campus on Thursdays and Fridays for five weeks and did computer surveys of 442 undergraduates. On the questionnaire, some of the students were shown the U.S. government warning that you'd typically find on a beer bottle. Others saw a "persuasion message" – something such as:
If you decide to drink, drink moderately. You will drive more safely, stay healthier and maintain your weight. You will make better decisions.
Or, in a more heavy-handed approach:
Excessive drinking considerably increases risks for car accidents, serious illnesses and gaining weight. It impairs good judgment and decision making.
Then students reported the number of drinks they intended to have tonight, tomorrow and the day after. Overall, the "drink moderately" message worked best to reduce people's intentions to drink, Lange reported. The government warning, however, was counterproductive for heavy drinkers, he said. The findings were presented at a symposium of the Kettil Bruun Society in Switzerland, in the city of Lausanne.
At a later point, SDSU researchers will head to the local bars at night to test out the messages on people who are actually poised to drink. Patrons would see the alcohol content of their drinks and one of the pre-tested health messages.
Lange acknowledged that posting the alcohol content of drinks could actually cause more drinking – and that, he said, is why more research is needed before policy is crafted.
"It isn't as simple as you put the information out there and people will use it and be more responsible … Before asking or requiring bars or restaurants to disclose alcohol content we really need to know if it's going to reduce excessive drinking and reduce drunk driving – or there are some people out there who are going to try and maximize the amount of alcohol they are going to consume," Lange said.