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Web-based alcohol intervention programme has limited effect

Web-based alcohol intervention programme has limited effect on consumption


New research from the University of Otago shows that a web-based self-assessment and feedback programme for students who drink hazardously produced only a modest reduction in alcohol consumption.

The intervention, a 10-minute interactive web programme, was evaluated in a large randomised trial. The research, published today in the latest issue of the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, was described by the journal editors as “the definitive study in the field”.

The study involved 14,991 students randomly selected from seven New Zealand universities. Over a third of the participants completed an alcohol screening test and 3,422 students who identified with hazardous or harmful drinking were randomised to the web intervention or the control group. The groups were followed up five months later to assess their drinking and related problems.

Students who received the intervention drank seven per cent less alcohol per drinking occasion but did not drink less often or less alcohol overall. In addition, intervention programme participants did not have fewer academic problems than control group participants who did not receive intervention.

Lead author Professor Kypros Kypri says the findings are were disappointing but consistent with what often happens when studies in single sites are scaled up to national implementation.

“Since the turn of the century, more than 50 trials of web-based interventions for alcohol problems in young people have been conducted. Some smaller studies, including our own, have shown promising results. This study was a large, national trial conducted under pragmatic conditions”, says Professor Kypri.

Evaluating the intervention at a variety of sites tested its robustness across student cultures, which vary in levels of drinking, exposure to alcohol outlets and promotion, he says. “Universities all over the world are grappling with alcohol-related problems because they have large concentrations of the heaviest drinking age group in the population.”

While drinking can be a positive aspect of student life, the negative effects universities have to deal with include assaults, property damage, sexually transmitted infection, and poor academic outcomes. In response, a lot of effort is being spent on developing interventions to reduce student hazardous drinking.

“Our results show that web-based programmes cannot be relied upon alone to address these problems and should be used in conjunction with effective environmental interventions such as restriction in the physical availability and promotion of alcohol,” says Professor Kypri.

“We are of course delighted to see this modestly funded Kiwi study published in one of the world’s finest medical journals. It is testament to the cooperative approach of the New Zealand university sector and the close support of ALAC, which is sadly now defunct, that this study was possible.”

Source: Kypri K, Vater T, Bowe S, Saunders J, Cunningham JA, Horton N, McCambridge J (2014). Web-based alcohol screening and brief intervention for university students: A randomised trial. JAMA, 26 March doi:10.1001/jama.2014.2138

The project was funded by the Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand.

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