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Stopping the '4th-year fifth'

By Ida Lee Wootten

Traditions at the University die hard -- even those that have only been around for a few years. Nonetheless, U.Va. officials, student leaders, athletes and members of the Greek system are engaged in a variety of efforts to dispel a decades-old perception that alcohol use among students is a rite of passage.

Alcohol Awareness Week, a series of educational events, kicked off Nov. 7, as students and officials unite to eliminate the "4th-year fifth." This relatively recent practice has fourth-year students competing to consume a fifth of alcohol on the day of the last home football game.

New student group

The name of a new student organization matches its mission -- Fourth-years Ending Stupid Traditions (FEST). The students have banded together to raise awareness of the dangers of binge drinking and to promote responsible drinking behavior during the last home football game. The group hopes to eliminate the "4th-year fifth," a drinking practice started some 10 years ago.

Attempting to drink a fifth of liquor is extremely dangerous, said Dr. James C. Turner, director of U.Va.'s student health department. "It's tantamount to playing Russian roulette. It places a young person at extremely high risk of injury, sickness or death."

FEST members will ask students to sign pledge cards promising to drink responsibly and not to participate in the "4th-year fifth." Students who bring the signed pledge cards to the football game can redeem them for U.Va. cups that entitle them to free non-alcoholic beverages during the event. Cardholders will also be eligible for a raffle of prizes donated by local merchants.

To encourage students to sign the pledges, athletes, cheerleaders and members of the Greek system will staff tables on the Lawn.

Stats on drinking

For the first time, U.Va. officials have a sense of how many fourth-year students may engage in the last home game drinking practice. Data from a longitudinal study of the 1999 undergraduate class showed that 84 percent of those surveyed did not participate in the practice.

In response to the question "Did you participate in the '4th-year fifth' during the day of U.Va.'s last home football game last fall?", 9.4 percent said they had finished a fifth of liquor; 6.7 percent had engaged in the practice, but did not finish.

The survey showed that fraternity and sorority members engaged in the "4th-year fifth" practice more than students who were not in the Greek system. Thirty-two percent of fourth-year Greek men and 1 percent of fourth-year Greek women consumed a fifth, the data showed. However, the data also showed that 32 percent of the fraternity men and 39 percent of the sorority women did not drink on the day of the last home football game.

The longitudinal study followed about 20 percent of the undergraduate class from the time the students entered U.Va. in fall 1995 until they graduated in spring 1999. During the fourth year of the study, questionnaires were distributed to 621 students in the group; 541 returned completed surveys, for a response rate of about 87 percent.

Alcohol Awareness Week

Students and officials in U.Va.'s Institute for Substance Abuse Studies will present Alcohol Awareness Week, Nov. 7-13. Although the week is observed nationally in October, U.Va.'s Alcohol Awareness Week is held to coincide with the last home football game, said Alison Houser, interim director of the Institute for Substance Abuse Studies. "We want to support the efforts of student leaders who are working to end the '4th-year fifth' practice," she said. "The week of events is intended to promote responsibility, safety and caring for others."

The week is planned by a University-wide committee chaired by peer educators of ADAPT, a new program created in response to recommendations of the 1998 U.Va. alcohol task force calling for greater student leadership on alcohol issues. Peer educators in ADAPT, the alcohol and drug abuse prevention team in the Institute for Substance Abuse Studies, worked with other students and administrators to organize events around the theme of "Say Something," a message that encourages students to address problem drinking by recognizing and stopping behaviors that enable students to drink.

The events are intended to stimulate thoughtful discussion, provide useful information and promote healthy decisions about alcohol use, according to Jill Ingram, ADAPT peer educator and chair of the week's planning committee.

In addition, the Fourth-year 5K run, created by student health's Office of Health Promotion in 1992 as a healthy way to celebrate the last home football game, will be held Nov. 13, starting at 8 a.m. at the Aquatic Fitness Center. Organized by Peer Health Educators, the five-kilometer race is open to everyone who can run, walk or roll. Winners will receive gifts donated by local merchants. U.Va. President John T. Casteen III will present plaques to the fourth-year male and female student winners during a quarter break at the football game.

A portion of the race proceeds will be donated to the Leslie Baltz Scholarship Fund. Two years ago fourth-year student Leslie Baltz died from head injuries in an alcohol-related fall. The Baltz family will be participating in the race that their daughter ran in 1997.

Social norms marketing campaign

Titled "U.Va.'s The Real Grounds," a series of new, brightly colored posters portray one principal message: most first-year students have 0-4 drinks per week. The posters are part of an information campaign begun in 1998 as a long-term education and research effort to curb high-risk drinking among first-year students.

Located in first-year residence halls, the posters proclaim such facts as:

  • 70 percent of first-year students say drinking is not a central part of their social lives;
  • only a minority of first-years think that drinking to get drunk is acceptable;
  • the majority of first-years intervene to stop intoxicated friends from harming themselves or someone else.
  • These facts are based on a random sample survey of 888 first-year students conducted in the spring of 1999. The survey results show that there are widespread misperceptions about alcohol use among first-year students, according to Elena Bertolotti, social marketing coordinator.

"The survey showed that 59 percent of the first-year students drink four or fewer drinks per week. That percent includes the 36 percent who abstain completely," said Bertolotti. "However, most first-years believe that the Ćaverage' first-year student drinks more than that. This misperception inadvertently leads to more drinking."

The posters illustrate the differences between the data and students' perceptions, Bertolotti said. The poster displays -- seven are planned -- are being rotated by residence life staff, who have received training on the basics of social norms theory.

"The staff are not only the harbingers of the positive norm message, but they are also conscious of comments that might unintentionally reinforce misperceptions about drinking," Bertolotti said.

Student reaction to the first poster was positive and shows solid retention of the data. Of 50 first-year students who were randomly questioned, 76 percent recalled that most first-year students have between 0-4 drinks per week. "The recall from the posters has been exceptional," said Bertolotti. "The challenge will be to provide new information and to keep it engaging. Recall is important, but we are most interested in finding out if there will be behavior change down the road."

In the spring, first-year students will be surveyed to determine their behaviors and perceptions. Results of the 2000 survey will be compared to those of the 1999 survey to see how students' knowledge and behaviors have changed.

The complete report of the 1999 survey is available at health/hp/survey.htm


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