Iowa City Stories

May 13, 2010

An ordinance for healthy drinking

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 programs 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.


April 1, 2010

The Question of 21

Iowa City has been described as a unique travel destination, even a Mecca, for people in surrounding communities. But the reason people flock to this town is not its vibrant music scene, nor its diverse theatre community, or even its rich literary tradition.

No, the predominant reason people come to Iowa City is simple: alcohol.

With bar entry set at the unusual age of 19, underage persons come in droves to Iowa City, joining UI students as they crowd into the city’s 52 bars every weekend. City residents have equated the presence of underage bar-goers, from both inside and outside the Iowa City community, with high rates of overconsumption and violence in the downtown area.

And with Mayor Matt Hayek leading the charge, the Iowa City City Council is determined to do something about the city’s “culture of consumption.”

The 21-Ordinance

On March 29 the city council passed its second reading of an ordinance that would raise the bar entry age to the legal drinking age of 21. Both readings of the ordinance passed by a vote of 6-1, with councilor Regenia Bailey casting the only dissenting vote.

Hayek has been among the council’s most vocal supporters of the ordinance, despite having opposed a similar measure two years ago that was ultimately voted down by city residents.

Iowa City City Council

“We know that underage drinkers get more intoxicated than legal age drinkers,” Hayek said at the March 23 meeting. “For the city this translates into public intoxication and other criminal offenses, problems downtown.”

And while Bailey agreed that the downtown culture needs to be addressed, she called the 21-ordinance “paternalistic” and said it unfairly targets a certain age group of young adults.

“I don’t think the local government should play the role of, I guess I call it uber-parents,” Bailey said. “Just because there are some bad apples in [a] class of people, I do not assume that entire class of people deserves to be addressed in a specific way.”

The ordinance will undergo its third and final reading on April 6, and if passed, will most likely go into effect on June 1.

Safety first

Like Hayek, many people are convinced the ordinance is necessary to help preserve the health and safety of city residents.

At the March 23 meeting Charles Green, the assistant vice president for UI police, called on the fact that Iowa City has become a “magnet for other communities” as one of the causes for downtown violence and other criminal behavior.

Green said that in 2009 a majority of public intoxication charges, 273 of 462, actually came from non-students.

“I firmly believe that a 21-law will improve the health and safety of not just our students, but young people in general,” Green said.

Opponents of the ordinance say it will force underage drinkers into neighborhood house parties which will be more difficult to police. Many opponents have also cited the fact that over the last year the Iowa City Police Department has had trouble policing the downtown area alone, with UI police often needed for overtime duty.

Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine sent a memo to the city council in which he assured the council that the department is prepared to handle any increase in neighborhood parties.

Hargadine was not available for comment on this story.

Healthy living

But for many residents the health of underage drinkers is more concerning than public intoxication or PAULA rates.

Victoria Sharp, president of the Johnson County Medical Society, said underage drinking can impact brain development and leads to higher rates of alcoholism and alcohol-related deaths and injuries.

“There’s a significant risk associated with underage drinking because the adolescent brain development continues through the twenties,” Sharp said. “This can have long term consequences for both individuals and communities.”

Sharp suggested that simply reducing access to alcohol could greatly improve the health and safety of the community.

Doug Beardsley, director of the Johnson County Public Health Department, also expressed concern for the health of city residents.

Beardsley said over a third of all alcohol-related ambulance calls in the county are for the downtown area, and the majority of those are for 19-year-olds.

“It just screams out that intervention is needed,” Beardsley said. “The current policy says that we’re really not serious about underage drinking.”

A question of culture

But believe it or not, some say bars aren’t just for drinking.

Many residents have expressed concern that a 21-ordinance will impact the city’s culture by making it impossible for underage persons to take part in the city’s music and arts scene.

Brett Thomas, the owner of Studio 13, which caters to the city’s GLBT community, said the ordinance would eliminate a safe haven for young gay individuals.

“We’re not so much a bar as much as we are a community center,” Thomas said. “Kids use the drag shows and the dancing as an excuse to come out and feel normal.”

Other residents say they are worried about more traditional venues losing visitors as well.

Andre Perry, booking agent for The Mill and founder of the Mission Creek Festival, said raising the bar entry age would limit the number of arts events that young people could attend.

“All we want to do is make sure that these kids have an outlet, something to do,” Perry said. “Much of what we do is just focused on giving people an artistic outlet.”

And while there are already provisions in the current ordinance that allow venues to conduct all-ages shows through cooperation with the police department, people like Perry are still worried about the impact of a 21-only law.

“I’m not afraid of losing business,” Perry said. “I’m afraid of Iowa City losing culture.”

Money matters

But unlike Perry, some business owners are much more concerned about the economic impact of the ordinance.

Marty Maynes, owner of The Union Bar, told the council that his business would almost certainly fail and force him into bankruptcy if the ordinance were passed.

Maynes said he has continually worked with the council on the issue, and even said he’s paid $20,000 of his own money to increase police presence and help curb violence in the downtown area.

“There are some of us out there doing it the right way,” Maynes said. “There’s other options I believe that we can do.”

A magic bullet?

And indeed there have been an abundance of alternatives proposed. Suggestions include everything from targeting specific bars as 21-only, to a two-tiered system where alcohol is only served on one level of a bar, to maintaining a constant police presence in the bars.

And despite all the arguments for and against the ordinance, most agree that the solution to the city’s problem with alcohol goes beyond any one ordinance.

Councilor Susan Mims articulated that sentiment at the March 23 meeting.

“I don’t think any of us up here are naïve enough, nor any of you there, to think that this is going to solve the problem,” Mims said. “It’s simply one piece to a much bigger problem.”

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