Reaching legal drinking age is a milestone for many young people. But wild 'I'm an adult now' partying can lead to serious trouble - or death.
First up on Nikki Schneider's 21st-birthday celebration was a bomb pop -- a shot made with lemon vodka, raspberry liqueur and blue curacao. Then a "get messed-up shot." Then a vodka concoction called a lemon drop.
Like many newly legal drinkers, Schneider was celebrating the occasion by gulping down a potent lineup of shots and cocktails. "Before, you're kind of restricted," said Schneider, who was out with friends at the Dinkytowner Cafe on a midweek night this month before a heavier night of partying the next weekend. "I'm an adult now."
Two years ago, Minnesota became only the second state to outlaw the midnight-to-closing birthday celebrations, dubbed the "power hour," to discourage dangerous drinking binges. Yet the tradition of alcohol-soaked 21st birthday bashes continues unabated around the state. Last month, a former Minnesota State University Mankato nursing student, Amanda Jax, drank herself to death while celebrating her 21st birthday.
Jax's death has helped bring a renewed focus on this enduring but dangerous rite of passage. Around the state, university administrators, bartenders and parents are grasping for ways to ensure 21-year-olds make it through their birthdays unharmed.
"Twenty-one-year-olds think they're invincible and they can do crazy things and get away with it," said Ed Ehlinger, director of the University of Minnesota's Boynton Health Service. "The 21st birthday is probably the riskiest time. More kids get in trouble on that day than any other day of their 21st year."They are now legal and there is a lot of pressure to celebrate this big event. They intellectually know that alcohol can kill you, but they don't internalize it and they do respond to the peer pressure."
Peer pressure that usually comes in small glasses filled with liquor.
The big night
The tradition is part celebration, part hazing. A group of friends takes the birthday kid to a bar. Every time he or she turns around, someone's buying a shot.
An undergraduate at St. John's when he turned 21, Scott Specken did a tour of five bars in St. Joseph. Among other drinks, he swallowed a double shot of microwaved tequila, a double shot of gin and a prairie fire -- a drink that mixes tequila and Tabasco sauce.
"Pretty much the goal of everybody is to get you as drunk as possible," said Specken, now 22. "It's their one night when they can buy you the crappiest, dirtiest drink that they can think of."
A 2006 study at Virginia Tech University found that the average male consumes 13 drinks on his 21st birthday, and the average woman, seven and a half.
The survey also showed that 32 percent of men and 26 percent of women drank so much on their 21st birthdays that they vomited. A third of all students experienced a blackout on their birthday and 30 percent consumed enough drinks to give them an estimated blood alcohol level of 0.28 or higher, putting them at risk for alcohol poisoning.
Jax, a resident of Mayer, Minn., who planned to study nursing, had a blood alcohol level of nearly 0.46 when she died in a Mankato apartment after a night of heavy drinking at a bar. Authorities in Mankato are considering criminal or civil charges in the case.
University of Minnesota Prof. Toben Nelson has studied drinking by college students for the past decade, both here and at Harvard.
"It's cheaper to binge drink than it is to go to a first-run movie in many college towns," Nelson said. "It's cheap, highly social entertainment and there's an industry around supplying alcohol to college students."
Amber Rice, now 24, regrets what happened on her 21st birthday. She started that day by tailgating before a Vikings game and doesn't really remember how it ended.
"I woke up the next morning in somebody else's house, had no idea where I was," Rice said. "My girlfriend didn't know where she was. My girlfriend and I still have no idea how we got there."
Recently, Rice went out for her younger sister's 21st birthday. She described her sister's night as fun but not crazy.
"Your friends want to get you to the point where you do throw up," Rice said. "I don't think they realize that you can drink and have a good time and not have it get out of hand."
Counting the days
After Jax's death, Winona State junior Rachel Ostroot's mother e-mailed her with a motherly reminder for Ostroot to be responsible when she turns 21 on Dec. 11, because she understands her daughter's anticipation.
"The 21st is that one time when you can do whatever you want and it's your own fault in the morning," she said.
Part of Ostroot's anticipation for turning 21 is the result of how many college juniors find themselves longing for the ability to go out with friends.
"Usually the people who are 21 go to the bar and the ones who aren't 21 get left behind and we have to come up with our own plan," Ostroot said. "It's the in-limbo thing that's really annoying."
Colleges and universities are trying different ways to encourage moderation among students. Many schools -- including St. Thomas, St. Benedict's and St. John's -- send birthday cards reminding students of the dangers of overconsumption.
Ohio State e-mails students with a message from a woman whose brother died on his 21st birthday while attending school there. Florida encourages moderation by supplying coupons for a free dinner and a movie that are good only the night of a student's 21st birthday.
Watchful bar staff
Bartenders are also watchful to keep 21-year-olds from going over the edge.
At the Lone Tree/Annex in downtown Minneapolis, general manager Brandon Weston said his staff tries to identify potential risk even before bargoers take their first sip.
"Lets say 'John Smith' is coming through the door and a security officer sees that he just turned 21. He'll warn the rest of the staff," Weston said. "They're all miked up, not to mention that all my bar-backs are miked up too. Now if it's some docile young woman with her friend, then she's doesn't really get red-flagged. But if six guys come in and they're 21, they're green-lit all night."
Power hour has always been a special concern for Bob Pomplun, a former bartender who has been training bar staff in alcohol awareness for more than 20 years. It's something he categorizes as "special event" drinking, which would also include bachelor and bachelorette parties.
In 2005, Pomplun testified at a hearing in support of a ban on power hour. Now, people turning 21 cannot drink on their birthday until 8 a.m., which cuts out the midnight drinking blitz.
"What that law did was it took away an opportunity for abusive drinking," Pomplun said. "Anytime you have an opportunity to eliminate risk, it's a good idea."
The door staff at the Library Bar and Grill just off the University of Minnesota campus is supposed to alert the bartender when a person celebrating a 21st birthday comes in, and it isn't to give that person a free drink.
"You don't know how many shots they took at another bar and it hasn't hit them yet and they just walked into your door, then it's on your shoes," said manager David Toby.
A 'forever problem?'
Even with all the precautions taken by parents, schools and bars, many acknowledge that there's only so much they can do in the face of such an established ritual.
"I think people celebrating their 21st birthday, it's an ongoing, forever problem," said Jerry Huettl, director of public safety for the city of Mankato. "I don't think we see [people drinking] 21 shots, but I know the officers see a lot of, 'Let's go down and get wasted, it's our 21st birthday.'"
Ehlinger acknowledges that whatever the universities do, many students are going to drink to excess on their 21st birthday. He'd like to see others realize the danger that comes with those actions.
"Other people have responsibility to call 911 when somebody is passed out," he said. "We've asked students how likely they would be to call 911 if their friend was passed out and you couldn't wake them? Only about 50 percent said they were likely to call. That should be 99 percent.
"If somebody passes out because of alcohol, they are at a risk of dying. If you see somebody hit by a car, you'd call 911 right away, there would be no questions. In many ways this is just as lethal."