Lawmakers propose to crack down on binge drinkingby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
Recent high-profile tragedies involving alcohol are sparking renewed interest in state legislation that has so far languished at the capitol. Legislators plan to re-draft bills to limit cheap drink specials at bars and also change state law to allow colleges to notify parents about alcohol violations.
St. Paul, Minn. — A year ago, State Rep. Morrie Lanning couldn't get a Senate sponsor for his bill banning free drinks and other bar specials. He hopes the alcohol-related deaths of four young people since the start of the fall semester have awakened the state to the dangers.
"It certainly is, I think, more on the public's mind than probably it ever has been before," says Lanning. "Binge drinking is a serious problem, and one that we need to address as a society."
Lanning, a Republican representing Moorhead and northern Clay County, is a former vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Concordia College in Moorhead.
Lanning authored the successful Power Hour law in Minnesota, which prohibits people from drinking until 8 a.m. the morning of their 21st birthday. It forestalls the practice of drinking 21 shots of liquor in the first hour after someone reaches legal drinking age.
Lanning also pushed the law banning devices that atomize alcohol so it can be absorbed through the lungs.
"Alcohol is a regulated drug in our society. It seems to me reasonable for the Legislature, for the state, to say that certain kinds of promotions would not be allowed -- promotions that really promote excessive drinking," says Lanning.
Lanning says his bill is not aimed at ending happy hours, but would cut out bottomless beer cup and lady's night free drink promotions.
Lanning has also co-authored a bill, with his DFL colleague Paul Marquart of Dilworth, that would change state law to allow colleges to notify parents when their children violate campus drug and alcohol policies.
The Moorhead area became a champion of alcohol restrictions after two students died following nights of heavy drinking in 2004 and 2005. Susanne Williams leads a collaboration formed since then among Minnesota State University Moorhead, Concordia University, and the city's community and technical college to minimize the culture of heavy drinking.
"Every single piece, including the legislation, can go a long way toward ultimately creating a culture that is much more safe, much more protective of one another," says Williams.
Some initiatives involve mandatory classes on the dangers of alcohol for all incoming freshman, paying overtime for police to patrol student neighborhoods, and altering students' perceptions of the prevalence of heavy drinking.
Moorhead State's own surveys indicate the rate of heavy drinking among students has dropped from 60 percent to 42 percent in four years. But Williams says such success does not mean advocates can let up.
"You have to keep that momentum going, and keep the attention on the issue year after year after year," says Williams. "Even when the dust settles, after these high-profile issues take place, you have to keep the attention and momentum going."
Williams says state legislation like Lanning's, further limiting access to cheap and abundant alcohol, is also important.
But others see the effort as heavy-handed. Jim Farrell, director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, says there's no clear consensus among the establishments he represents on a state law limiting drink specials.
"The problem is that Representative Lanning is thinking about Moorhead and Fargo, and I have to think statewide," says Farrell.
Farrell agrees all-night free drink offers are inappropriate. But he says a better way to deal with the problem is to enforce existing regulations flouted by unscrupulous bar owners.
"What we have now is drink specials, and more of a public acceptance of just stupidity," says Farrell. "People are in the business to make money. They're not in the business to give alcohol away."
Despite the recent alcohol-related deaths of young people, Farrell doesn't see any renewed enthusiasm for statewide restrictions on alcohol. He notes Lanning's and Marquart's bills failed in previous legislative sessions.
Farrell also notes that lawmakers last year allowed liquor sales closer to college campuses, and also allowed strong beer sales at the Minnesota State Fair.
- All Things Considered, 01/16/2008, 5:54 p.m.