The Pilot Editorial

Thursday, May 6, 2004

Underage bar ban

You may have read how Susan Rice of Storm Lake took her concerns about youth drinking before the Storm Lake City Council this week. It normally takes a tragedy to mobilize such an public effort - as in the serious burns suffered by a young coed at the University of Iowa that propelled this same discussion in Iowa City in the summer of 2002.

Rice says that since the bars can't completely prevent underage people from being served, it makes sense to stop people under age 21 from hanging out in the bars to start with. And she's right.

It's not fair, however, to pick out one bar, or to suggest they aren't trying. Those businesspeople in fact have much to risk from underage drinking - starting with their licenses. Still, it is sad to see than in the past week, one of those police stings still turned up three of seven liquor sales places checked selling to an underage person without even checking for an ID.

It is naive to think that the laws we have will prevent underage people from drinking in bars with their older friends, that wait staff can police every table in a crowded, noisy club, or that police will catch every underage drinker before they get back in a car and go driving on our local roads.

What are you going to do about teenage alcoholism? Ban drinking from the BVU campus? That will just put even more students driving to watering holes here and in the larger cities of the region more often. We have debated banning those "all you can drink" promotions, but that will work best only if bars across the region do the same. (That's a law the state should work on.)

It's not easy to ban the underage from bars. First, you have to determine what a bar is. What about restaurants that have a bar? Private receptions in gathering places where liquor is served? Outdoor festivals and concerts with beer stands? A college student's room where beer is being consumed? A private house party?

Many of the bars employ people who are under 21 - would a law cost them their jobs? What about musical performers who play such places but are not over 21?

Still, it can be done. Several states have bans on young people entering bars (some allowing it if they area with a parent over 21). Some cities have tried it on their own.

Frankly, as Councilman Denny Vaudt suggests, a good first step would be to form a group with all of the liquor licensees and law enforcement in a room to try to find solutions to Storm Lake's particular needs on the underage drinking problem. If we can achieve our objectives voluntarily and cooperatively, there is no need for another layer of laws.

But if that isn't possible, we think the city should ban those under 21 from bars, period. There's no reason for them to be there, and they aren't likely to find much there but trouble or a headstart on a problem.

Will bar owners complain? Why? If they say they are losing alcohol profits, doesn't that just mean they were serving too much to those who were too young? Nobody's going to cry over those losses for them.

Would such a ban solve all underage drinking problems? Of course not. It isn't hard for a young person to get someone to buy them a key or a case, or to find a house party where they can get their fill. As a community, and a university, we will not absolve ourselves of the responsibility to provide something else to do for young people. Storm Lake hasn't done that very well.

The city council could set the first example by quitting the business of peddling booze itself. Former council member Norm Taylor tried many times to get the city to stop selling alcohol at its golf course, and was summarily ignored. We're sure one of Storm Lake's businesses could take on the catering of alcoholic beverages for private functions there.

It seems kind of counter-productive for police cars with officers paid by the city to sit in the KC Hall lot for long periods at night in part to catch any drinking drivers coming down the road, some of whom may have been drinking just across the street on liquor served them by that same city government. As a community we sell it, as a community we arrest people when it gets them intoxicated. Problem?

Don't get us wrong - the majority of people in the bar business in Storm Lake are quite responsible, and the vast majority of their patrons are equally so - enjoying themselves responsibly and legally. Nor are young people especially to blame for drinking-related crime. The pages are full of reports of drunken behavior by people long since old enough to know better.

We don't aim to hurt those who serve or purchase alcohol responsibly, or to blame a friendly brew or two for all the ills of society.

The bottom line, however, is that it makes no sense for those who can't legally drink in this state to be put in places that are in the business of alcohol.

The ball's in the city council's court, it seems. If they ignore this woman's plea now, and some teenager is hurt in a drunken car rollover, brawl, suicide or other incident next month or next year, they will now be asked to answer for it - whether that is fair or not.