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An ordinance for healthy drinking May 13, 2010

Posted by jdoetkott in Journalism.
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When times are tough people often turn to the tired expression, “Well, at least I have my health.”

Americans spend trillions of dollars on health care and medical expenses every year, doing almost anything they can to protect their well-being. And on June 1 an ordinance will take effect that city councilors hope will do its part to help protect the health and welfare of Iowa City residents.

On April 6 the Iowa City City Council passed an ordinance that will raise the bar entry age to the legal drinking age of 21. Effective June 1, the ordinance passed by a vote of 6-1 with councilor Regenia Bailey casting the only dissenting vote.

Mayor Matt Hayek said the ordinance is intended to alter the city’s “culture of consumption” and curb both underage and binge drinking.

The dangers of starting early

During lengthy discussions in the City Council meetings that lead up to the ordinance’s passing, many proponents cited alcohol-related health concerns and the dangers of underage drinking.

Kelly Vander Werff, prevention manager for the Mid-Eastern Council on Chemical Abuse (MECCA), said underage drinking can have both short and long-term effects on a person’s health.

Vander Werff said underage drinking can damage the brain’s frontal lobe, the brain’s decision making center, which is still developing until around the age of 25. She also said underage drinkers are more likely to drink in a high-risk way, and research has shown that people who start drinking early are more likely to become addicted.

“If everyone would wait until they are 21 we would see a lot fewer problems in the adult population,” Vander Werff said.

Environmental change

The 21-ordinance is an example of what health professionals call “environmental change” and can be one of the most effective ways to reduce widespread alcohol-related problems.

Doug Beardsley, director of the Johnson County Public Health Department, said in order to combat underage drinking and overconsumption it’s important for city law to be in alliance with community expectations.

“As it is, you do have that kind of tacit acceptance,” Beardsley said. “This [ordinance] aligns public policy and our stated desire to cut down on underage drinking.”

Beardsley said similar ordinances implemented in other areas have been successful in reducing underage drinking and thought the same was possible for Iowa City.

UI Student Health offers several services to help students with substance abuse

Angela Reams, substance abuse prevention coordinator at UI Student Health, noted that not only is it important for these laws to be enacted, but also enforced.

“Research has shown that enforcement of the legal drinking age and enforcing legal bar entry age reduces high risk drinking and underage drinking,” Reams said in an email.

Vander Werff said Iowa City’s high alcohol outlet density – the majority of the city’s 52 bars are in the downtown area – is a major cause of the city’s alcohol-related problems.

“Having easy access to alcohol increases consumption for all ages,” Vander Werff said. “Decreasing access is the primary way people see population-level change.”

A different kind of education

But as effective as environmental change can be, Vander Werff and others agree that alcohol education is also critical to effecting lasting change in the community.

The UI already has several alcohol education programs in place which are continuing to expand.

The AlcoholEdu program is “designed to prevent alcohol-related problems and educate students on the impact of alcohol on the mind and body,” according to the UI website. For the past four years the program has been mandatory for all first year students, but will be expanded next year to include all incoming students including transfer students who are not 21 by the start of school, Reams said.

The UI also recently added the e-CHUG program which allows students to receive instant feedback on their drinking habits and provides information about how they can live a healthier lifestyle.

Reams said programs such as e-CHUG can be very helpful in curbing high-risk behavior.

“Research has shown that programs that provide assessment with instant feedback about behaviors can assist students in thinking more about their behaviors while drinking, encourage the incorporation of more protective factors, challenge social drinking norms, and decrease high risk use,” Reams said in an email.

And apart from the university, MECCA, for which Vander Werff is a prevention manager, has prevention staff working in all Johnson County high schools to educate those younger students about the dangers of alcohol.

A piece of the puzzle

But environmental change and education are still not enough.

Beardsley said the city needs more alcohol-alternative outlets for students and other underage people to participate in.

“Let’s make this a place where they can engage in social activities where they don’t drink,” Beardsley said.

UI President Sally Mason has made alcohol-alternative events for students a priority and while the Campus Activities Board and Residence Life put on several programs every weekend, the events are poorly attended. Many students still feel it’s not enough, with popular events like Night Games only being held once a month.

And while UI officials look for new ways to educate students and attract them to sober events, everyone agrees that the 21-ordinance is not going to solve the city’s alcohol problems on its own.

“There is no one solution to curbing high risk drinking, so [the ordinance] is definitely part of a larger plan including environmental change, policy change, and education along with other initiatives,” Reams said in an email.

Vander Werff echoed Reams, saying the ordinance is not the final solution, but a necessary step towards healthier drinking in Iowa City.

“It’s a piece that needs to be there for the rest of the plan to come together,” Vander Werff said.

For a look at some of the public safety concerns surrounding the 21-ordinance, click here.