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Proposal for beer/wine at venues on a trial basis

Dear University of Maryland community,

After extended and careful consideration, the University has submitted a proposal to the Prince George's County Board of License Commissioners ("Board") for permission to serve beer and wine at UMD athletic venues starting in fall 2015, on a one-year trial basis. This Board has agreed to consider our request at an upcoming meeting (to be announced).

The idea originated last fall with the Student Government Association (SGA), which presented it to the University Senate Executive Committee. This Committee referred the issue to the Athletics Council. Chaired by Professor Nick Hadley (Physics), this Council—comprised mostly of faculty and staff and some student representatives—studied the issue and voted 16-1 earlier this spring to recommend to me that beer and wine sales be allowed on a provisional basis, with an assessment at the end of the year. 

The SGA, the Graduate Student Government, and various other student organizations endorsed the recommendation, as did the UMD Police Department and the Division of Student Affairs. A subsequent online forum elicited 1,000 responses, about half expressing a clear preference: most of the students (N=265) were in support; most of the faculty and staff (N=112) were not; alumni (N=47) and community members (N=19) were about evenly divided.

Our student leaders want to "transition the student body from a culture of unsafe pre-game binge drinking to a culture focused on healthier social drinking." I agree with their approach and support the proposal for several reasons. 

First, the proposal is consistent with UMD's commitment to a healthy and safe living and learning environment. Since the legal drinking age was raised nationwide from 18 to 21 about 35 years ago, high-risk ("binge") drinking has become a public health issue across the country. Prohibition has failed to curb under-age drinking. It has only driven it "underground" to off-campus sites, beyond the direct oversight of university officials.

An alternative strategy, which we have begun to apply successfully, is to "normalize" student drinking behavior, so that it occurs safely and responsibly in a monitored environment. It must be accompanied by extensive alcohol education, counseling, and prevention programs, as well as compliance with applicable drinking laws.

For students 21 and over, UMD and the Inter-fraternity Council recently started to co-sponsor tailgates with beer and wine in an enclosed and monitored area near the stadium. Some 3,000 students attend them. They have replaced the informal and unsupervised student tailgates in local neighborhoods, resulting in fewer alcohol-related social and behavioral problems. The Prince George's Property Owners Association deems these supervised tailgates a "tremendous success" and has endorsed the proposal for beer and wine in sports venues. For underage students, we sponsor alcohol-free tailgates on campus, which attract hundreds of students.

We mandate educational and prevention programs for all freshmen plus provide on-going training and oversight in all Greek chapters. Our alcohol safety staff also educates students living in off-campus apartments. Next, we plan to engage parents to talk with their children about responsible drinking before they arrive as freshmen. Our Health Center staff will be trained to screen and counsel students with drinking problems. Campus police have expanded "party patrols" and safety efforts in local neighborhoods. We extended the reach of the Student Conduct Code beyond the campus to hold students accountable.

The evidence at other large universities (e.g., Syracuse University; Colorado State University) shows that beer and wine sales at athletic venues have not increased binge drinking. Most universities also report no significant decrease either. 

Some UMD baseline figures are informative. Our binge drinking rate is somewhat lower than that at peer institutions: 37% vs. 41%, the average of other Big Ten schools. (It ranges from 33% at the University of Minnesota—which serves beer and wine in its athletic venues after a two-year trial period—to a high of 49% at Northwestern University and 54% at The University of Iowa).

The number of UMD students who have never used alcohol has been rising slowly (16% to 24% from 2009 to 2014). Emergency alcohol transports from our on-campus residence halls, where no liquor is allowed, to hospitals has remained about the same (21 to 25 persons/year). We must continue to improve these trends in order to reduce the harmful personal, academic, and social consequences of excessive drinking. 

Second, beer and wine sales are already available to the hundreds of fans in the boxes at our sports venues. This proposal will extend that option to fans seated elsewhere. 

About 85% of attendees at our sports events are over the age of 21. Many adult visitors consume alcohol in the parking lot tailgates throughout the campus. Once they enter the sports venue, they are not allowed to exit and re-enter. Offering beer and wine in the concession stands will enhance the fan experience.

As for those underage, our proposal to the Board includes strict protocols. Purchasers must show government-issued ID. Anyone who misrepresents his or her age or obtains an alcoholic beverage for an underage person will be immediately and permanently expelled from the venue and prosecuted under the law and/or the Code of Student Conduct. 

All servers will be certified by the state-approved alcoholic beverage training program. Only one cup of beer or wine will be sold per transaction; none will be sold in the vicinity of sections designated for undergraduate seating. Sales will cease well before the end of the game. Police will be assigned to assist the required "alcoholic beverage control officers." Additional police and staff will be deployed to monitor fan behavior. A designated driver and cab program will be promoted throughout the venue. 

Third, the net revenue from the sales—estimated at approximately $500,000 per year—will be earmarked to expand student support services, such as mental health counseling, sexual assault prevention, and responsible drinking programs. In an era of constrained budgets, the student demand for these services exceeds the available funding.

If the Board approves the proposal, we will monitor carefully its implementation and impact. I have asked Dr. Linda Clement, V.P. of Student Affairs, to do a comprehensive assessment at the end of the trial year. The Athletic Council will have data to inform its deliberation on whether or not to continue this initiative.

Short of lowering the legal drinking age, there is no single and simple solution to curb high-risk drinking. However, I believe that supporting safe and responsible drinking in a controlled environment, together with education and prevention, will enable us to better manage excess consumption, and its attendant harms, on and around our campus. And, it will enhance the fan experience at Terp games. 

Wallace D. Loh
University of Maryland