Friday, October 19, 2007

Why "21-Only" Isn't

October 19, 2007, 12:45 p.m.; October 20, 2007, 8:30 a.m.

"21-Only"? Nonsense!

There's lots of action -- or at least discussion -- about the so-called "21-Only" proposal. Why "so-called"? Because it's not about "21-only" at all -- notwithstanding that characterization by supporters and opponents alike.

The Daily Iowan editorializes this morning, with a headline reference to "21-Only," "As most people are well-aware, this election will decide the fate of a proposed ordinance banning anyone under the age of 21 from the Iowa City bars" -- a brazenly inaccurate characterization. Editorial, "21-Only Voting Might Spur Increased Student Engagement," The Daily Iowan, October 19, 2007, p. A6.
Under this proposal the Iowa law would continue to be openly violated in Iowa City's bars up until 10:00 p.m. You may think that's a good idea, you may think it's a bad idea, but it is clearly not "banning anyone under the age of 21 from the Iowa City bars."

A columnist in this morning's Press-Citizen spreads this mischaracterization further by calling it "a proposal that would prevent anyone younger than 21 from entering a bar." Jesse Tangkhpanya, "When Political Opposites Join Forces," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 19, 2007, p. A11.

Most newspaper stories about the proposal ultimately get around to a factually accurate description, but not before headlines and leads speak of "a 21-only ordinance," Rob Daniel, "Sides Clash on 21-Only Proposal; Few Students Attend Forum," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 19, 2007, p. A1; "the 21-and-older bar issue," Gregg Hennigan, "Supporters, Opponents Air Views on Bar Law at Forum," The Gazette, October 19, 2007, p. A1; or "21-ordinance," Abby Harvey, "Group Targets 21-Only; The UI Student Health Initiative Task Force Rallies Students, Encourages Voters in Hopes of Defeating the 21-Ordinance, Which is on the Nov. 6 Ballot," The Daily Iowan, October 12, 2007, p. A1.

Bob Patton's editorial cartoon of October 13, 2007, depicts a deteriorating "downtown Iowa City" going down a sewer designated "21-only." Patton's Pad, Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 13, 2007, p. A15.

Even supporters of the proposal have it wrong, as evidenced by one author's assertion that "the 21-ordinance . . . raises the bar-admission age to 21." Christine Allen, "Don't Get Scared by Anti-21-Only Rhetoric," The Daily Iowan, October 16, 2007, p. A6.
So, what are the facts?

Under the present "restrictions" of the City Council, from the time bars open -- 6:30 a.m. on football game days for "breakfast" -- until 10:00 p.m. there are essentially no restrictions on who can enter.

And if the so-called "21-only" proposal passes? That will still be the law!

Think about that for a moment. Calling this a "21-only" proposal is a gross distortion of what it's about, designed to frighten with this characterization those voters who wish to perpetuate the bar owners' profits from operating businesses at which the law is routinely violated.

All the proposition involves is what happens between 10:00 p.m. and closing time. Under the present "restrictions" the illegal provision of alcohol to those who are under the age of 19 can only continue up until 10:00 p.m.

If the so-called "21-only" proposal passes, the illegal provision of alcohol can still continue up until 10:00 p.m., but from 10:00 p.m. until closing time the Iowa law will be enforced.

Iowa law prohibits the sale of alcohol products to anyone under the age of 21.

I'm perfectly willing to consider any independent, reliable data regarding the advantages and disadvantages of lowering the drinking age to 18. (Among other things, setting the age at 18 would eliminate what may be for some students the appealing notion of getting away with something illegal.)

But I don't think arguments that "those old enough to fight for their country ought to be able to buy a beer" have any relevance whatsoever as to why it should be OK to violate the present law -- which very clearly is "21-only." In order to avoid disrespect for law generally, I believe whatever the law may be should be enforced -- until, if desirable, it is changed.

Given that what bars do is sell alcohol, it would not be unreasonable for Iowa City, like a great many sensible cities around the country, to provide that no one under the age of 21 could enter establishments the sole purpose of which is to prosper from the consumption of alcohol by those who enter. Actually, that's kind of a no-brainer if you think about it.

Iowa City's City Council, however, proud of this university community's reputation as one of the underage binge drinking capitals of the nation, with a wink and a nod has been able to expand students' access to alcohol from a mere 7 bars not long ago to 51 today. Think of the profits. Think of the "economic development." Think of the "vibrancy" of the downtown. Wow!

Now those are City Council members worth voting for, aren't they? (The only reason we need the referendum is because the Council members thought it too much of a burden on wealthy bar owners to have to comply with the law after 10:00 p.m.)

It is apparently relatively easy for underage students to obtain alcohol in bars, what with fake IDs, reimbursing legal-aged friends who buy them drinks, and undoubtedly other methods of which I am unaware. Once they have entered the bars it is virtually impossible, with or without the assistance of the police, to comply with the Iowa law.

In fact, if illegal sales were not being made, if bar owners' underage patrons were not consuming alcohol illegally, why would bar owners care if the additional (19- and 20-year-old) underage students had to leave at 10:00 p.m.? Why would the 10:00 p.m. expulsion of those who shouldn't really be there at any time of day have an adverse impact on the economy or "vibrancy" of the downtown? The only reason it might have an economic impact is because bar owners have been flagrantly violating the law all along and would like to be able to continue to do so 24/7.

If this were truly a "21-only" proposal I could understand the bar owners' objections to the loss of such a substantial portion of their total, ill-gotten gain. I wouldn't agree with them, but I would understand.

But the ordinance is not a "21-only" law.

It is rather, it seems to me, an excessively modest compromise.

We have a very serious problem of binge drinking by young students that leads to sexual assaults and other violence, adverse impacts on health including the possibility of more alcoholism than might otherwise exist in their lives, and a devastating impact on their educations -- up to and including more dropouts than would otherwise occur -- not to mention the adverse impact on the community generally and its residents. Critics of Iowa City's lax approach to the law note two student deaths -- one from a student inhaling his own vomit, another from a drunken student falling off a balcony -- plus "drunken driving deaths, countless drunken assaults and attacks and a 2005 Harvard School of Public Health study that states UI has a binge drinking rate of nearly 70 percent." Lee Hermiston, "Iowa's Drinking Called Epidemic; Experts Say Bingi9ng Affects Health Later," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 13, 2007, p. A1.

As UI Public Safety Director Chuck Green said, "alcohol consumption does exacerbate the problem of assaults and sexual assaults in the community. 'We know there's a whole host of other issues that accompany intoxication. Sexual assaults go up, criminal mischief goes up, assaults go up. Anything we can do to reduce those crimes would be beneficial." And Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine reports, "'After 10 o'clock at night [Iowa City's downtown] has a different personality. And most of it is due to alcohol. Alcohol affects everything we do after 10 p.m.' . . . Hargadine said the downtown area becomes more violent, disruptive and unsafe. There's fighting, littering, uprooting trees and all kinds of mischief-related activities that have alcohol as the common denominator." (The foregoing is from the October 20 piece in Lee Hermiston's four-part series about the proposed ordinance. Lee Hermiston, "21-Only to Affect Police; Pass or Fail, Proposal Will Change Law Enforcement; Most Reported Offense in Downtown is Underage Possession of alcohol," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 20, 2007, p. A1.)

Here are the two most relevant administrators of law enforcement in the community supporting this ordinance, and providing graphic data and reasons why, and some of the same folks who are willing to support whatever the police want -- from arming campus police to providing more city police officers -- are unwilling to listen to them when it comes to the criminal and otherwise costly consequences of underage drinkers in bars after 10:00 p.m.

(And see also the October 20 letters to the editor: Sarah Hansen, "21-Only Will Make Iowa City Better," and Christine Allen, "Iowa City Has a Drinking Problem," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 20, 2007, p. A16.)

Iowa City's drinking establishments have, among other things, deliberately set fire to a bar where customers were sitting, staged fights inside the bar, and more recently staged an event described as a "party" at the Union Bar with a "mandate of matching lingerie for cocktail waitresses [that] endangered the young women's welfare [creating] a haven for the objectification of women, an environment in which lewdness is an encouraged standard." Patrick Bigsby, "'Sex Sells' Excuse Sold Out," The Daily Iowan, October 10, 2007, p. A6

A true "21-only" would produce a significant reduction in binge drinking, notwithstanding opponents' canard about it "just going elsewhere" (something that is going on now anyway).

This ordinance will not have such a substantial impact. But it should result in an improvement -- without a significant adverse impact on the legitimate, legal profits of any bar owner. A requirement that bar owners obey the law a couple of hours a day cannot seriously be argued to be a very onerous imposition.

Let's give the proposal a chance. As Iowa City Police Chief Hargadine says, "There's only one way to know for sure [how much it will help] and that's to do it." (From Lee Hermiston's October 20 story.)

But to do that, the media, and the voters they inform, need to know precisely what it is this ordinance does, and does not, provide. And the fact is that no one is going to be voting on "21-only." Not in this town.

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Anonymous said...

I don't understand all this hand wringing now about drinking...It was bad back in the 80's when I was there. From what my parents told me there was a lot going on in the 60's and even my grandma told me stories of it in the late 30's.

7 to 51 bars? Where did that number come from? There is not a lot of difference in bars now than the late 80's. A few more maybe, but some are also gone like Gabes and Tycoon IC.

It will go elsewhere if it went to a true 21 only. That being said, it is probably the best solution for the bars. You would get a lot more small group drinking in apartments off campus, but it would solve the downtown problem somewhat.

Anonymous said...

Read the law Nick. It is legal for a person under the age of 21 to be in a bar unless the bar owner restricts entry to those 21 and older or there is a city ordinance that sets restrictions on the age or times when they can be present.

It is not legal for a person under the legal age to drink to consume alcohol in a public place however it is legal for them to consume alcohol in private place under certain restrictions (which as a practical matter are not enforceable).

Private parties where alcohol is served can be attended by underage persons without problems unless someone complains and the police come to investigate the problem. Only a subset of parties result in complaints and the police may not come very quickly if they are busy so we have no idea how many parties there are now.

Surveys indicate that 22% to 30% of 10th to 12th grade students occasionally over-consume alcohol and they are not doing that in bars. They drink at parties or in cars. So some of our young people are just continuing the behavior they started in high school.

Anonymous said...

"A true "21-only" would produce a significant reduction in binge drinking, notwithstanding opponents' canard about it "just going elsewhere" (something that is going on now anyway)."

Maybe you have more than anecdotal evidence to support you proposition here, but my anecdotal evidence (undergrad in Ames, grad student in Iowa City) is that "going elsewhere" is a legitimate concern. If you think it's bad having tailgaters in your backyard 4 or 5 days a year, imagine every rented home in your neighborhood (a lot of them, if I'm not mistaken) taking turns hosting keg parties. This is Tursday, Friday, and Saturday night in Ames.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I were students during the late 50's and early 60's. That's when and where we learned to drink. Very, very few problems. Drinking age was 21 then as well. Rarely, police would walk through bars and observe problems if there were no problems! 'Twas a lot of fun with fond memories. Leave the kids alone. If they mess up that's another story. Part of life's experience and growing up.