Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sides Disagree on 21-only's Health Effects


University of Iowa student and 21-only opponent Matt Pfaltzgraf admits that binge drinking is a problem in Iowa City.

However, Pfaltzgraf said he thinks supporters of the 21-only ordinance are missing the mark in their belief that kicking underage patrons out of bars will prevent them from binge drinking.

"The whole notion that the first time students have a drink (is) at night when they go to a bar is just insane," Pfaltzgraf said. "What students do is pregame. They preload. They're binge drinking before they even leave their house."

The most dangerous drinking in town doesn't occur in downtown bars, but at house parties, fraternity and sorority houses and tailgates outside of University of Iowa football games, Pfaltzgraf said.

He cites reported incidents to back up his belief, as well. In November, Drake University student Nathan Erickson reportedly ingested a large amount of Everclear as part of a fraternity hazing. His blood-alcohol content at the hospital registered nearly .50, or more than six times the legal limit to operate a vehicle, .08. He was 19 at the time and made a full recovery.

In September 1995, UI student Matthew Garofalo passed out drunk at a fraternity house and was found dead 12 hours later after his lungs filled with his own vomit.

"You have the largest research institution in the state of Iowa and they cannot provide any data these (underage) students are binge drinking downtown, that that's where they're getting their alcohol," Pfaltzgraf said.

Nonetheless, supporters of the 21-only ordinance insist that keeping underage students out of the bars will make it more difficult for them to get booze, which, in turn, will lower their opportunities to engage in risky behavior.

Rick Dobyns, a clinical professor of family medicine at UI and 21 Makes Sense member, said the 21-only ordinance is good public health practice.

"It just makes it harder (to obtain alcohol)," Dobyns said of the ordinance. "Of course, will they go elsewhere to drink? Sure. It just makes it harder."

Dobyns said many people, even those who are 19 or 20, could drink and not have any problems. However, there are no tests to see who will succumb to alcohol-related issues, such as alcoholism, and who won't.

"We apply a rule to everybody to help a few," Dobyns said.

A former Johnson County paramedic sees it differently.

Ryan From, who worked with the Johnson County Ambulance Service for eight years, said the downtown bars are getting a bad rap for behavior that is taking place outside of the pedestrian mall.

"Most intoxicated patients came from unsupervised house parties, apartments and unlicensed venues -- hands down," From said.

"The thing is, a lot of times at house parties, people are afraid to call. That's when people get hurt and people die. It's in the bars' best interest to have that person leave or leave with medical attention."
Health concerns

Regardless of where they are finding it, experts agree dangerous drinking is especially detrimental for young imbibers, especially those younger than 25.

"Their brain is still developing," said Stephanie Beecher, a health educator for UI Student Health Service. "In this critical time of development, the brain is still maturing, still developing judgment skills."

Alcohol abuse for underage drinkers can have both short- and long-term effects, Beecher said. In the short term, alcohol abuse can lead to making poor or risky choices, as indicated by a rise in acts of violence and sexually transmitted infections, Beecher said. As for long-term effects, people can develop alcoholism and other health problems.

Although his office won't advocate one way or another on the 21-only ordinance, Johnson County Public Health Director Doug Beardsley said a law preventing underage patrons from entering bars is sound public policy and will go a long way to address alcohol addiction treatment and public perception of what is acceptable behavior.

Good policy or not, however, Beardsley said the ordinance won't do much on its own and must be part of a greater effort.

"I don't have the expectation this is the be all, end all, but it's an essential part," Beardsley said, noting the importance of offering alcohol-free alternatives. "Without changing the policy of allowing underage persons into drinking establishments, none of those (alternatives) are going to go very far."

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