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Can Fear Of Cancer Keep College Kids From Binge Drinking?

They're probably not thinking about breast cancer risk right now.
They're probably not thinking about breast cancer risk right now.

Many college students associate a good time with good friends, good music and good booze. But with half of all college drinkers engaging in binge drinking, the habit remains one of the biggest health risks among young adults.

Campaigns that tackle this problem often focus on familiar risks like drunken driving, unsafe sex and even death, but researchers say that warning students about the lesser-known link between alcohol and cancer may also be a new approach for deterring binge drinking.

In 2009, an estimated 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths in the U.S. were alcohol related, and recent studies suggest that women who drank daily increased their risk of breast cancer by 13 percent. Alcohol can also lead to mouth, pancreas and liver cancer, but because these links have only been recently established, college students may be less aware of them.

Educating them about those dangers may lower students' intent to binge drink, says Cindy Yixin Chen, a health communications researcher at the University at Buffalo and the study's lead author.

In the study, 116 students ages 17 to 24 were asked if binge drinking could increase their cancer risk; how big the risk; and how much they planned to drink in the next month. Of the 88 percent of students who thought there was some risk of alcohol-related cancer, those who thought there was more risk also said they were less likely to drink to excess.

Using visuals, graphs and statistics to get the message across made for a more effective campaign than ones using just text, the study found.

The results will be presented at the 64th Annual International Communication Association Conference in May.

The key here is novelty, Chen says, adding that students hear the same health messages about drunken driving and unsafe sex so often that they've become less effective over the years — a consequence of something called "message fatigue."

"When we get repetitious messages, our brains simply ignore those messages," Chen says. So warnings of alcohol-related cancer have the advantage of being new and possibly more effective.

But not all researchers agree that health risk warnings are the best way to deter college kids from binge drinking.

"Intuitively, you'd think that that would work — the whole idea of fear appeal — and yet there is a whole body of research of some that say that it works and some find that it doesn't," says Joyce Wolburg, a behavioral communications professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin, who wasn't involved in the study.

For most people, she says, the benefits at the moment trump the health risks that pop up later in life. And when college students are at a party and surrounded by peers, there are plenty of positive reasons to drink — anything from feeling the buzz to making new friends.

Plus, most college students don't feel vulnerable at this age. "You're dealing with a group of people who feel, as they've said to me, 'I'm bulletproof,' " Wolburg tells Shots. Many of them, she says, don't think that the severe consequences of drinking will happen to them.

"You have to be careful when you're trying to [deter binge drinking] on the basis of fear and risk," Wolburg says. "First, you have to know what they're really afraid of, and use the thing that they fear most."

And what they're most afraid of may not necessarily be cancer, but something more immediate like social repercussions. No one wants to be known as that "bad drunk" who always passes out and needs to be taken care of, says Wolburg.

"So the campaigns that have gone after that angle make more sense to me," she says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Poon