College students who are in so-called Greek letter organizations seem to be immune to programs that work for other students to reduce the use and abuse of alcohol, according to a new review of research on the topic.
Fraternity members continue to drink as much and as often as usual, even while enrolled in programs aimed at reducing drinking, and they have the same number of alcohol-related problems - such as injury, sexual assault and expulsion - as brethren not involved in programs, the researchers conclude in the journal Health Psychology.
"This was somewhat surprising given the success of alcohol risk reduction interventions in other student groups," said lead author Lori Scott-Sheldon, a senior scientist in the Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine at The Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island.
Members of Greek letter organizations, both fraternities and sororities, tend to drink more alcohol, drink more often and experience more alcohol-related consequences compared with students not in Greek organizations, the researchers note.
To determine how well interventions might work in these groups, the team searched for studies that tracked the outcomes for individual students and found 15 papers that met their criteria.
The studies included a total of 6,026 student members of Greek organizations and 21 different alcohol intervention programs. Only one in five participating students were women and nearly all were white.
The research team determined how well the interventions worked by looking at how much students reduced the amount they drank per week or per month, how often students drank and how many alcohol-related problems they experienced.
Most of the interventions were given to students in groups and provided alcohol education, such as explaining how to calculate blood-alcohol levels, introduced strategies to moderate drinking and addressed high-risk situations like parties.
Most interventions did not focus on helping students set goals for themselves, give personal feedback or talk about social norms or motives for drinking.
Overall, the researchers found, students in intervention programs tended to drink more per week or per month compared to those who did not participate in the program, but the study team notes that these results may not have been reliable.
Shorter interventions and those that challenged the positive expectations students had about drinking at specific events tended to work best for fraternity members. Other approaches had little effect.
"Because there were no interventions targeted specifically to sorority women, we don't really know how well interventions may or may not work for sorority members," Scott-Sheldon told Reuters Health by email.
Steven Giles of Wake Forest University in Charlotte, North Carolina, who studies college drinking, is not convinced that interventions do not work on fraternity members. The study team did not include studies of interventions that use mass media or rely on the school community to help, he noted.
There are serious consequences to excessive drinking, said Giles, who was not involved in the review. "Students who are heavy college drinkers are more likely to struggle with alcoholism in adulthood," he told Reuters Health by email.
Greek-organization members may view some alcohol-related problems like blacking out, fighting or driving under the influence as a badge of membership or something to be glorified, he said.
Giles warned, however, that people who experience these problems and others, like sexual assault, can face lifelong psychological or legal issues. "We should all take this problem seriously," he said.
New interventions that are specifically targeted toward Greek members and their attitudes about drinking are needed, Scott-Sheldon said.
"We also want to engage Greek leaders in health promotion initiatives, making sure that they have a place at the table and are part of the solution," she said.