Limiting Drink Specials

Impact Score16.5
Students Impacted15%

What are drink specials?

Alcohol retailers often market drink specials in order to draw in consumers and increase sales. Drink specials allow for patrons to purchase large quantities of alcohol at reduced rates. Sometimes discounts on drinks are offered over a period of time, typically referred to as a “happy hour,” which commonly occurs in the late afternoon hours. Cleverly phrased promotions, such as “all you can drink” fixed-price specials or “dollar drinks” may also be used.

Drink specials may be particularly harmful to college or university students by facilitating high-risk consumption. Research demonstrates a relationship between drink specials and patron intoxication among college students. In a study of college patrons, “all you can drink” specials were found to be significantly associated with patron intoxication level (Thombs et al., 2009). Similarly, in an examination of 2001 College Alcohol Study (CAS) data and the alcohol environment both on and off 118 college campuses, the availability of large volumes of alcohol, low sale prices, and frequent promotions and advertisements were associated with higher binge drinking rates on campus (Kuo et al., 2003).

Not surprisingly, drink specials can also influence student consumption expectations, especially among binge drinking students who may be most susceptible to such promotions. In a 2001 study, students shown ads for low-priced drinks demonstrated higher intentions to patronize and higher personal consumption expectations compared to students who were shown promotions for food. These findings were most pronounced for binge drinkers (Christie et al., 2001).

Due to the significant impact that drink specials can have on college and university students, many campus and community coalitions have made concerted efforts to reduce the prevalence of such promotions at both on- and off-campus establishments. Some states and communities have banned the practice of offering drink specials altogether.

Research findings

Many campuses and communities that have restricted drink specials have experienced positive outcomes in student drinking behaviors. For example, when several bars and nightclubs voluntarily agreed to limit the use of drink promotions as part of a University of Wisconsin-Madison’s prevention initiative, the university saw decreases in liquor law violations and incidents of disorderly conduct among students (“University of Wisconsin-Madison: PACE Project: Reducing the Consequences of High-Risk Drinking,” 2003). In addition, a study that looked at College Alcohol Study (CAS) data in conjunction with a number of price and policy variables found “happy hour” restrictions to have a significantly negative impact on both marijuana and alcohol use (Williams et al., 2004).

What is most clear from the research is that promotion restrictions may have the most impact when implemented in conjunction with other policies or programs, such as server training programs and increased enforcement. For example, Boston College implemented a comprehensive alcohol policy that included server guidelines and a ban on the marketing and promotion of alcohol on campus. With such efforts in place, BC saw decreases in alcohol-related incidents both on- and off-campus and a decrease in the number of students who needed medical attention for intoxication (“Boston College: Alcohol and Drug Education Program,” 2001). Similarly, San Diego State University saw significant reductions in the frequency of heavy episodic drinking after the university launched an initiative to eliminate low-price drink promotions, require responsible beverage service training, and launch campaigns to correct student perceptions of campus norms regarding alcohol use (“San Diego State University (SDSU): Collegiate-Community Alcohol Prevention Partnership,” 2001).

Issues and considerations

It is important that a campus restrict drink specials both on-and off-campus. Although some campuses may ban alcohol on campus altogether, others may consider establishing strict policies regarding alcohol-use on campus. For example, a campus may institute policies that restrict large quantities of alcohol or drink specials at campus venues and require responsible alcohol service training.

To address the off-campus environment, administrators can work with community leaders or enlist the support of a campus and community coalition to advocate for reduced drink specials or other policy changes, such as requiring responsible beverage service training or limiting the number of alcohol outlets near a campus. As mentioned previously, instituting multiple policies in tandem to address the drinking environment may achieve optimal results for a campus.

Finally, a policy restricting drink specials must be consistently enforced, with no exceptions given to groups who host events, such as Greek organizations. Such an exception sends conflicting messages to students and will ultimately decrease students’ perception of an institution’s commitment to enforcement.

Boston College: Alcohol and Drug Education Program (2001). The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention.

Christie, J., Fisher, D., Kozup, J., Smith, S., Burton, S., & Creyer, E. (2001). The Effects of Bar-Sponsored Alcohol Beverage Promotions Across Binge and Nonbinge Drinkers. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 20(2), 240-253.

Kuo M, Wechsler H, Greenberg P, Lee H. (2003). The Marketing of Alcohol to College Students: The Role of Low Prices and Special Promotions. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 25(3): 204-211.

San Diego State University (SDSU): Collegiate-Community Alcohol Prevention Partnership (2001). The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention.

Thombs, D. L., O’Mara, R., Dodd, V. J., Wei, H., Merves, M. L., Weiler, R. M., et al. (2009). A field study of bar-sponsored drink specials and their associations with patron intoxication. Journal of Studies on Alcohol & Drugs, 70(2), 206-214.