Friday, January 18, 2008

Getting Real About Alcohol

January 18, 2008, 11:30 a.m.

Don't Get Tough, Get Effective

Alcoholism, alcohol abuse, binge drinking, drunk driving, under-age drinking. We should not be surprised that our nation's number one hard drug problem by any measure (e.g., economic impact, health/medical consequences, numbers of people affected, involvement in crime and violence, adverse impact on the brain, prison population, unwanted sexual activity ("accidents cause people"), impact on fetus, automobile and other death and injury) is a major problem in Iowa as well.

As I write, Ben Kieffer is broadcasting one of his outstanding "The Exchange" programs devoted to the subject (with an emphasis on under-age drinking). Ben Kieffer, "The Exchange," Iowa Public Radio, January 18, 2008 (a streaming, or downloadable, version should be available from this site, if not later today then by early next week). (Alcohol is the hard drug of choice for Iowans. Iowa is in the top fifth of the nation's states for under-age and binge drinking; one-third of Iowa's 11th graders engaged in binge drinking during the past 30 days. Sixth graders are drinking.)

Last evening KCRG-TV9 devoted a segment to the subject, focusing on the latest efforts from the University of Iowa. Steve Nicoles, "UI Studies Underage Drinking," KCRG-TV9, January 17, 2008

This morning's Press-Citizen reports that even the alcohol-promoting-pro-bar Iowa City City Council has decided it can no longer turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the brazen violations of law by local bar owners. Lee Hermiston, "Que Bar's liquor license suspended," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 18, 2008, p. A1.

The alcohol-related problems at Lake Macbride have become so severe that it's likely there will soon be a total ban on any alcohol inside the park boundaries. Rob Daniel, "Alcohol ban possible at Macbride; Complaints about behavior have increased," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 17, 2008.; AP, "Booze May Get Boot at Lake Macbride," The Gazette, January 17, 2008, p. B5.

Meanwhile, the University of Iowa -- whose students are a major part of the problems -- has once again decided it wishes to appear to be "doing something." Diane Heldt, "Options instead of alcohol; Groups trying to cut underage drinking," The Gazette, January 17, 2008, p. B1. And see
"UI team aims to end underage drinking," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 17, 2008.

But what, exactly, does Diane Heldt report it is proposing to do?

UI Interim Provost Lola Lopes announced the creation of the two groups Wednesday. One group is to look at the legal and policy issues and the other is to look at alternative activities for students late at night other than drinking in bars.

A lot of the cultural and entertainment activities on campus end at 10 p.m., Lopes said, with little for students to do on weekends between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. UI administrators want to change that, she said.

The idea of forming the groups, Lopes said, was spurred by the defeat in November of an ordinance that would have made Iowa City bars 21 and older after 10 p.m.

“We knew we had to try another tack, so these two working groups are the result of that desire to look further,” she said.

Suggestions from faculty and staff for evening activities include unusual educational offerings, volunteer programs and roller skating and dancing, she said.
This is not the UI's first effort to "do something." For over a dozen years there has been a very generously funded project called "Stepping Up." ("We received three grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: a start up grant in 1996, a five year grant in 1997, and an additional four year grant in 2002"). Unfortunately, these efforts have produced little more than an increase in the numbers of students (both legal and under-age and illegal) who are regularly stepping up to the bar.

This is no accident. It could very well have been, and was, predicted.

Now don't get me wrong. I have great respect for UI's Interim Provost Lola Lopes. And her second task force -- the one that "is to look at the legal and policy issues" -- may ultimately come up with some proposals that would actually have an impact.

But assuming we have responsibility to "fix" students' perceptions that there is "little for students to do on weekends between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m." (has anyone considered suggesting they might sleep?) or that if we do so by providing opportunities for "unusual educational offerings, volunteer programs and roller skating and dancing" that it will have a meaningful impact on students' binge drinking and its consequences is a true example of "the triumph of hope over experience." That is what we've been doing for over a decade while students continue to prefer "Stepping Up" to the bars.

Note the differences in the UI's approach and the approaches that work.

Ames (Iowa State University) logically concluded that if it's illegal for those under 21 to buy and consume alcohol in bars it only makes sense to say they can't enter bars, the sole purpose of which is to profit from the legal and illegal sale of alcohol.

The proposal in Iowa City -- inaccurately described by opponents as "21-only" -- was nothing of the sort. It was nothing like as rational as the Ames approach. It only dealt with those hours the Provost is addressing: 10:00 p.m to 2:00 a.m. For four hours every 24 Iowa law would be enforced. With City Council members opposition, and the University Administration sitting it out as "too political" (while noting that those 18 and over are serving in the military), and the local bar owners who take in $235,000 a month from illegal sales organizing the binge-drinking students to vote against it, not surprisingly the measure failed. (Had the University undertaken even a wee bit of effort to get the ordinance understood and passed it might well not have failed -- a defeat now cited by Provost Lopes as what "spurred" her two task forces.)

This is not a matter of "getting tough," it's a matter of "getting effective."

The Ames approach is effective.

The proposed Iowa City ordinance would have been effective.

The Lake Macbride ban on alcohol will be effective.

Suspending and refusing to renew liquor licenses (especially if accompanied with stepped up enforcement efforts at the bars known to be flagrantly violating the law) is effective.
Giving students the option of roller skating at 2:00 a.m. is not likely to be effective.

What could the University do if it wanted to give this problem something more than lip service?

It could encourage, and support with more city and campus police in bars, stricter enforcement of the law.

It could do more to publicize the names of students caught violating the law -- in their hometown papers as well as here.

It could at least notify parents.

It could petition to deny the liquor licenses of those bars known to be violating the law.

It could put students' violations on their transcripts, and inform potential employers.

It could use suspensions and expulsions for students' liquor violations and arrests.
Is it likely to do any of these things? I doubt it -- based on the last decade of inaction (as distinguished from rhetoric).

[3:30 p.m. insert:] State29 takes issue (that's law professor talk for "blasts the hell out of me") for even mentioning these items. State29, "Prohibition Always Works," January 18, 2008 1:05 p.m.

It's not necessary that State29 and I agree on all issues -- which is fortunate, because we certainly don't. But in this instance we're not as far apart as would first appear. As I wrote last Tuesday in the context of considering options and rational analysis in assessing the needs for additional police officers (and increased budgets), it may very well be that the best thing to do about underage drinking is nothing; or, more properly, to simply lower the drinking age to 18. Nicholas Johnson, "'How Many Police Officers and Fire Fighters Does It Take To . . .'" in "Rational Thought About Realistic Needs: Police & Fire," January 15, 2008.

Nor, even without that clarification, was my list, above, a wish list that I was advocating the University adopt. I was simply noting that IF the UI wanted to do something effective about binge drinking there are a number of things it could have done over the last 10 years. It's not what they say -- or what they do (or in this instance don't do) -- that bothers me so much. What I'm addressing is the inconsistency between the two: representing that this is a serious problem, that they don't want to be known as one of the intercollegiate binge drinking capitals of America, that they're doing all they can to stop it -- when in fact that does not seem to be the case.]
If the University were interested in becoming truly effective there are plenty of things it could have been doing all along -- far more than I thought up in the couple of minutes it took me to write those above.

Whether it wants to be effective will become clearer as the spring semester evolves and the two task forces discuss their options and prepare their reports. But so far, over the years, effective efforts by the University have not seemed to have been a goal.

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Anonymous said...

Printing it in their hometown newspapers? Telling parents?

Come on. They are 18 years old. Lets not just pick on 18-21 year old alcohol violations. Why not note it on anything put out by the Johnson County Auditor as well? Be fair.

Getting them out of the bars, and doing all this other stuff will just lead to the creation of apartment speakeasies. Drinking in smaller groups.

Anonymous said...

Nick they need a study committee and two study committees is even better because they chances they will agree are small (very small). If they don't agree they can appoint a third committee to study the findings of the first two committees and if they are good a selecting committee members they probably won't agree either. This process can last for years.

The ultimate in U. Iowa committee reports was a six member committee that was supposed to make recommendations about the rhetoric program and there was a committee report and five minority reports. A second committee was appointed to figure what to do about this and that committee never met.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with State29's strident libertarian approach, but some of the measures you propose are very draconian (and in fact, seem legally suspect).

Are you sure it's a good idea to completely void a students' entire college career over the admittedly poor decisions of one night? Doesn't that seem a little extreme?

Isn't there some other, more creative approach than the stocks and shackles route? If the University enacted some of the policies you suggest, they'd have a riot on their hands...

Anonymous said...

There's a much simpler, less emotional way to confront this issue. Its virtue is that it sidesteps the inevitable culture-war attributes of an objection to generalized public drunkenness, or an objection to SUI's mush-mouthed, let's-appoint-a-committee-to-study-the-issue posture.

Just make them pay for it. Assess the university for its unreasonable economic impact on the public health, public safety, and public welfare of Iowa City.

In this sense, today, the cost of enforcing the law and bearing the nightly cost of clean-up is unreasonably assigned to Iowa City residents who are not attending the university and will be here long after the current SUI president departs.

Town should assess gown the costs of enforcement and clean-up. This will cause gown to bear the economic weight of its non-policies. Surprise, gown will find it cheaper to get involved in the issue and make changes.

I happen to think that the drinking age is too high, also. But nothing anyone says is going to lower it, not in this environment. I suggest that the university pay its share of the costs for its wandering, confused, non-wards.

A few million a year to enforce existing law will likely reintroduce at SUI some mild form of in loco parentis. No one should freely cause other people to pay the cost of a nightly binge.

Forget the moral or stylistic objections to kids getting bombed. Just have them pay for the privilege, as every other adult not sheltered by a flummoxed bureaucracy must do. Send the university a bill for $6mm or so, and they'll pass it throught to the consumers.

$200 per student = $6mm a year for extra cops and streetsweepers. That's a message that is culture-war free.

Anonymous said...

The U. of Iowa does pay Iowa City for some services. My recollection was at one time they paid some of the extra costs of law enforcement during home football games. I also recall there was a dispute between IC and UI over that a few years ago.

They do not pay the jail to house students overnight even though the county can use some extra income. At $75 per student per night in jail (Motel 666) the bill would probably amount to $40,000 to $50,000 just for public intoxication charges.