The Jackson County Prevention Coalition, citing a problem with underage drinking locally, is proposing an ordinance to restrict how many businesses near schools may sell alcohol.
As it goes before county government and its municipalities, it is receiving, shall we say, a watered-down reception.
As it should.
Should the measure be enacted, businesses making new application for alcohol licenses would be denied if they are within 500 feet of a school. Only new applications would be impacted because, under the proposal, businesses already holding licenses would not be affected. The ordinance includes an “out” permitting exceptions for unspecified reasons.
Underage drinking, wherever it occurs, is a problem. And few communities can honestly claim it is not an issue for them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, citing the 2017 survey it conducted with state and regional partners, high school students reported that during the prior 30 days:
• 30% drank some amount of alcohol.
• 14% binge drank.
• 6% drove after drinking alcohol.
• 17% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol.
Again, that’s just during the previous month. These CDC statistics are, well, sobering:
• Excessive drinking is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths among underage youth each year, and in 2010 cost the U.S. $24 billion in economic impact.
• Although drinking by persons under the age of 21 is illegal, people aged 12 to 20 years drink 11% of all alcohol consumed in the U.S. More than 90% of this alcohol is consumed in the form of binge drinks.
• On average, underage drinkers consume more drinks per drinking occasion than adult drinkers.
• In 2013, there were approximately 119,000 emergency rooms visits by persons aged 12 to 21 for injuries and other conditions linked to alcohol.
It’s a problem. Those statistics paint a picture on the national level. What’s going on locally? Hard figures on underage drinking in Jackson County are harder to come by — references are more anecdotal.
Advocates for the ordinance do cite state figures indicating that Jackson County has nearly half-again more licensed sellers of alcohol per capita than the Iowa average. Julia Furne, coordinator for Jackson County Prevention Coalition, was quoted in the TH on Monday as saying the number of sellers is a problem. “Where there is more access, there is more excess,” Furne said. “It’s a pretty straight line.”
Agreeing is Jack Willey, a member of the Board of Supervisors, which supported the measure on a 2-1 vote. He said, “Jackson County has a very high rate of underage drinkers … If we can do something to help alleviate that problem, we should do it.”
There is a difference between addressing the root causes of a problem and grasping at straws. The Jackson County proposal is doing the latter.
Underage drinking is a multi-pronged problem. It involves youth culture, parental and community attitudes, and compliance with existing law by alcohol sellers.
To what extent, if at all, does the distance between those sellers and the schoolhouse door factor into the equation? This ordinance seems to assume that underage drinkers are acquiring their alcohol on their way to or from classes or school activities. Is there evidence to support that? Why else limit licenses based on their proximity?
If licensees near schools are breaking the law by selling alcohol to youths (or to adults knowing that they are buying for youths), that must be addressed by law enforcement, local issuers of licenses and the state
Alcoholic Beverages Division. But that is true of any licensee, regardless of the seller’s address. Nearby school or not, the law needs to be followed and enforced.
Certainly, the real issues impacting underage drinking are tougher to get at than limiting licenses according to proximity to schools. But that’s what needs to be done, rather than enacting this ordinance.