Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, December 3, 2002

Advertising and alcoholism

A new alcohol policy proposed at Buena Vista University has stirred up an interesting debate involving the student newspaper, "The Tack."

Students from The Tack addressed the university senate recently, protesting a part of the policy under which the university could ban advertising of alcohol products in campus media.

The Tack students offer a two-part argument: One, that banning a particular form of ads is a violation of their freedom of speech; and two, that the ban will take away ad revenue they need to keep printing the paper.

As to whether the moral or financial argument is the one of most validity, you'll have to decide for yourself.

And, to further spice up the discussion, the students say that if they can't run bar ads, that all the magazines and newspapers in the library with liquor ads should be removed, along with some residence hall floor shirts and everything else that refers to drinking.

The whole issue is a fascinating one. BVU undertook an intensive survey and study into the drinking habits of campus residents, and found, of course, that some students are alcoholics, and most are not. The study is a springboard to a new policy on alcohol designed to reduce binge drinking. Nobody seems to be questioning the need for such a well-minded effort.

I doubt if anyone really believes that leaving bars out of the school paper, radio and TV advertisements is going to cause students not to drink.

If not, it's just a "statement" issue then.

The university - and its media - are private, and it can probably weather the challenge of its own students. It might get stickier if a local bar or liquor store decided to take the issue to court for discrimination against its right to advertise a legal product.

This and most other newspapers don't ban booze ads. We don't get too many - we're family-oriented and not necessarily the target audience. Papers like ours can and do refuse ads they feel are not appropriate for their audience. Perhaps a "Drink 'Til You Drown" night isn't such a great idea, especially if it gets your bar shut down because of underage boozers in the crowd.

One columnist in The Tack suggests that university officials fear taking the steps to "attack the root of the problem" - going to the city council for an age limit on bar entry or adopting limits on alcohol use on campus. The result would be a drop in enrollment, the columnist suggests. Of course, an opinion in the same issue by a member of The Tack editorial board strongly supports decriminalization of private use of marijuana.

Anyway, the BVU alcohol policies are well-intentioned and an example other schools might do well to follow.

But the alcohol advertising ban might not be worth the hassle. It can't be expected to achieve much in a practical way to stop alcoholism, and the perception of university manipulation of the students' news products could backfire.

How do you stop binge drinking? Even education won't have much of an impact - college age people know the effects and have made up their own minds whether they care or not. It would take changes in habits toward other activities to make much difference. It is telling that The Tack features a cartoon titled "Just some of the exciting things to do in Storm Lake" - with only an empty white square for the art. It will also require a shift in the attitude that it's acceptable and even attractive to get regularly trashed.

Which BVU do we preach to? The one that needs to use a drunk bus to get its students back and forth from the bars in one piece? Or the one that is finding great success with its first non-drinking residence hall?

We notice The Tack uses disclaimers on alcohol ads calling for responsible consumption. And most of the bar ads in the latest issue talks about live music and meal specials with little on drinks. That's a pretty good compromise move for the young journalists.

Banning the ads would help ignore the problem, but it wouldn't do much to solve it. Freedom of the press is also a lesson worth teaching.