Policy makers should accept that young people sometimes go out to get drunk and will exceed guidelines on daily alcohol intake, said researchers at the University of Bath.
The study, presented at a conference on health and young people in London, questions government and industry tactics to combat excessive drinking.
It also comes a week before ministers launch a £10 million campaign to cut confusion about the number of units in alcoholic drinks.
Research team member Dr Andrew Bengry-Howell said: "Young people talk about drinking in terms of fun. Focusing on harm doesn't resonate with them."
He blamed the alcohol industry for sending young people a "dual message", using promotions and marketing to encourage drinking, while also telling them to cut back. The Bath team spoke to 89 young people in a series of focus groups across the West Midlands and south west England.
Helen Conibear, editorial director of Alcohol In Moderation, agreed that scare tactics "made people switch off".