If booze cost more, would college students drink so much?

It’s no secret that college students like to drink. But if they had to pay full retail price for their booze, would they drink quite so much?

Hard scientific data are hard to come by on precisely how much American college students are drinking and how much they spend on it. A popularly cited graphic by the rehab center 12 Keys, which cites other sources, says the average college student spends $500 a year on alcohol, while the University of Pennsylvania’s student health service says it’s more like $900. Others cite a statistic saying students spent about $5.5 billion a year on alcohol in total. But that stat is from a study published in 1991.

“When federal organizations and other organizations make choices in their research, [they] focus on prevalence and consequences,” explains Rich Lucey, a senior official at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the federal agency tasked with preventing and treating underage drinking, binge drinking, and alcoholism. “They don’t focus so much on the economics.”

With good reason: Binge drinking, alcohol poisoning, and longer-lasting dependence issues are a big problem for college students. Many don’t appreciate the consequences of the partying lifestyle until it’s too late.

But the money behind college student drinking is important in changing that behavior. There’s an inverse correlation between the price of alcohol and the amount students drink: As the price goes down, drinking goes up, as several studies have shown.

A recent example can be found with a college student in Fusion’s “Blackout” series who says she drinks a lot, but only spends $5 at the bar on any given night. That’s because she pregames with shared liquor and knows bartenders who give her cheap or free drinks. At her school, Ohio University, beer can be cheaper than water.

Similarly, Harvard researchers showed in a 2003 paper that a “wet” alcohol environment—including happy hours, drink specials and advertising around campus—greatly increased the rates of binge drinking among students.

So what’s to be done? Organizations hoping to reduce problems associated with college binge drinking might do better to regulate the marketing and pricing of alcohol near colleges, rather than try to change the minds of students directly, the Harvard researchers argued.

That makes sense: Someone is paying the broader tab for underage college students’ drinking, even if it isn’t them. In some cases, there are wealthy kids hosting house parties or friendly bartenders giving away shots. But the alcohol industry itself also doesn’t necessarily mind giving away freebies to college students, within legal boundaries, because cheap booze can entice loyal, lifelong customers.

As the targeted advertising startup El Toro put it in a 2014 infographic showing businesses how to cultivate brand loyalty, “today’s college students are tomorrow’s consumers.”

The ways in which alcohol is marketed to college students can have a lasting impact on their drinking after graduation. Students themselves may not have a lot of money to spend on alcohol, but their frequent trips to the bar create habits. And those habits, once linked to a steady paycheck, can be incredibly lucrative for the alcohol industry down the line. The shots that cost just $1 in college cost $4 or $5 later on at bars, and the free beer at campus parties are worth at least a few dollars a bottle or can.

So in many ways, even the highest estimates of what college students spend on alcohol may be undervaluing what they actually consume.

“It’s not so much that college students are spending,” says Lucey. “It’s how much they’re drinking.”

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