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According to The Princeton Review’s 2017 College Hopes & Worries survey, debt has been the biggest concern among college student and parents for the past three years. In addition to worrying about debt, 76% of student respondents reported high levels of stress. This is a concerning combination of issues for young people. With the price of college skyrocketing over the past decade, it is no wonder that students are worried about their finances. While not a new phenomenon by any means, bars are luring in stressed out, penny-pinching students by offering attractive low prices on alcohol. Drink specials are often held during certain hours and days, commonly marketed as “happy hour,” which incentivize students to go to the bar, spend little money on large quantities of alcohol, and drink heavily on weeknights.

In some states, the concept of happy hour is well known for low price drinks, but in other states where regulations do not allow bars or restaurants to sell alcohol at a reduced price during specific time periods, happy hour is better known for low price food specials. For example, in Massachusetts alcohol retailers are not allowed to sell a drink at a reduced price so many restaurants and bars instead incentivize customers with food during happy hour, selling half price appetizers rather than half price beer.

Research demonstrates that drink specials can be especially harmful for college or university students. By offering discounted prices, bars are facilitating high-risk drinking. Research shows a relationship between drink specials and intoxication, specifically among college students. A study of 118 college campuses demonstrated that low sale prices and frequent alcohol promotions were associated with high-risk drinking rates on campus. Other researchers looked at how “all you can drink” specials impact students. They found this type of drink special to be significantly associated with intoxication levels among students.  

Just like the rest of us, students can be influenced by marketing and advertising. Research found that students shown advertisements for low-priced drinks report increased intentions of going to the bar with the low-priced drinks and higher expectations of how much they will drink, compared to students presented with promotions for food. The findings were even more evident among the riskiest drinkers. So, not only are students influenced by drink special advertisements, but the high-risk drinkers are the most susceptible to these promotions.

Institutions looking to reduce the risk of unwanted, and often dangerous, outcomes resulting from students drinking in a high-risk manner have made policy efforts to reduce or eliminate drink special advertising and promotional pricing. Of course, a policy restricting drink specials must be consistently enforced. These efforts are most successful with buy-in from the campus community and, specifically, bar owners. Bar owners actually have a lot to gain from eliminating drink specials. When an institution is able to engage bar owners as partners in preventing high-risk drinking, the bar has fewer alcohol-fueled arrests in their establishment and the campus community benefits from fewer alcohol violations. Bar owners and institutions coming together through a shared sense of responsibility to the community and its students is the ultimate goal.

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