What is Breathalyzer Feedback?
Many campuses will measure students’ blood alcohol concentration (BAC) on a given night via a breathalyzer or breath test. Sometimes prevention staff will also provide students with detailed personalized feedback about their BAC levels. These feedback sessions can be conducted on-the-spot, or at a follow-up meeting when the student is not under the influence of alcohol. Feedback may consist of providing information regarding the risks of consumption at the measured BAC level, as well as tips for reducing one’s drinking to a safer BAC level or range. Social normative information might also be included in the feedback session, offering the student’s BAC level in comparison to his or her peers.
Historically, we know that measuring in order to set limits on people’s alcohol consumption can sometimes backfire. Dating back to 10th century England, pins were inserted in communal drinking cups in pubs to stop people from drinking beyond them. This well-intended measure had the reverse effect, with people drinking up to the limit that was set, whereas before they had consumed more moderately.
More recently, in the 1980s breathalyzers were introduced in bars so that patrons could measure their BAC before getting behind the wheel. While this was intended to promote more moderate consumption, it became a means of competition with bar-goers attempting to out-drink one another. Ultimately, the bar owners had them removed.
Very little research has been published on the efficacy of breathalyzer feedback. One study (Thombs et al., 2007) did examine whether personalized blood alcohol concentration (BAC) feedback would deter high-risk drinking in first year college residence halls. Over a two-year period, students in an intervention hall were administered breath tests and a survey about their drinking at night and received their readings along with normative feedback via the web the next day. In a comparison hall, students received their BAC readings, yet without any normative feedback. Overall, the study found that students in the intervention hall had slightly higher BAC levels after the intervention occurred. In addition, there were no group differences for negative consequences or quantity of consumption.
This study raises many questions and some concern over the process of providing breathalyzer feedback to students. The authors of the study suggest that the rise in BAC levels may be due to students’ finding the social normative messages “objectionable,” and thus feeling provoked to increase their drinking (Thombs et al., 2007). Because of this potential reaction of students to try and “disprove” their campus drinking norms by raising their BAC levels, an institution ought to carefully consider whether implementing this strategy will pose more of a risk than a benefit to their student population. While some campuses may choose to continue to provide students with breathalyzer feedback, we advise that this not be a central component of campus prevention efforts.
Thombs, D. L., Olds, R. S., Osborn, C. J., Casseday, S., Glavin, K., & Berkowitz, A. D. (2007). Outcomes of a technology-based social norms intervention to deter alcohol use in freshman residence halls. Journal of American College Health, 55(6), 325-332.