Minnesota has a drinking problem. If the state were a person, by now its friends would have run an intervention. Instead, we're left to fumble around in creating our own 12-step program from scratch, and it hasn't been easy.
To address one element of binge drinking, the state three years ago passed a law changing the age at which a person can legally purchase alcohol to 8 a.m. on the day of that person's 21st birthday. The purpose of the law is to combat the practice called the "power hour," whereby a person turning 21 would try to drink an inordinate amount of alcohol in the time between the stroke of midnight of their birthday and the bar's closing time.
While well-intentioned, the "power hour" prohibition didn't prevent last year's death of Amanda Jax, a student at Minnesota State University, Mankato, who drank herself into a coma on her 21st birthday last October. It's unclear what impact, if any, the law has had on binge drinking.
State Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, the author of the "power hour" prohibition law, is taking another stab at legislation targeting excessive drinking. A bill he introduced targets limitless drink specials and promotions offering free alcohol to women. The bill's prospects are uncertain, and its provisions may need some fine-tuning, but it's a start.
Even Lanning recognizes that legislation can only do so much. We need a broad societal effort to counter a problem that afflicts the state on multiple levels. Excessive drinking is not just a problem among our college students: It's an issue in all age groups in the state and the region.
Minnesota ranks third in binge drinking, just behind our neighbors Wisconsin and North Dakota and just ahead of Iowa and South Dakota, according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly a third of Minnesota 12th-graders reported engaging in binge drinking in the two weeks before they were surveyed. The economic cost of alcohol abuse in Minnesota in 2001 was $4.5 billion, according to the state Health Department, with 1,324 deaths attributable to alcohol.
There's no single institution responsible for addressing our state's drinking problems.
For instance, binge drinking among college students has a higher correlation with living in a fraternity or sorority house than it does with just about any other factor, including whether the student engaged in binge drinking in high school, according to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health. That is not to blame fraternities and sororities. Correlation is not causation. Rather, those institutions can be enlisted to help address the problem.
If the Legislature takes away the all-you-can-drink punch bowl, it may just send the party down the road, but at least it's a start in recognizing that the party needs to come to an end.