In Grand Forks these days, a lot of people are wondering why the recent report of a task force on underage and binge drinking is generating so little enthusiasm. True, the report's recommendations seem to miss the boat: They single out bartenders for special training and licensing, even though few underage drinkers get their liquor in bars.
But here's my take: I think the report's being greeted with a yawn because most people in Grand Forks don't think binge and underage drinking is a big problem. (That also would explain why the task force's public meeting on the subject drew a scant 100 participants.)
What's more, at this point I'm inclined to agree with the skeptics in town. Is binge and underage drinking a problem in Grand Forks? Absolutely, as it is in every community in America, especially college towns. But is it a problem at such a high level here as to warrant task force and similar attention?
Frankly, I don't think it is. Mind you, I could be persuaded otherwise; but that's the point. So far, the evidence I've seen just isn't enough.
In my view, the situation with drinking here is analogous to the situation with guns. My guess is that a survey would reveal a high level of gun ownership in Grand Forks, as in the rest of North Dakota. But who cares? As North Dakotans know in their bones, the issue isn't guns. The issue is what people do with guns -- and in this state, people tend to use their guns in a lawful manner. So, Grand Forks consistently ranks among the safest cities in America on the issue that really counts: crime.
So it is with drinking, I think. If GF really had a problem with excessive drinking, then you'd expect that problem to show up in public-health statistics. Does it? For example, does Grand Forks have an unusually high rate of, say, car accidents, many of which likely would be alcohol-related?
Well, I don't know the accident rate in Grand Forks, although I can attest that my car-insurance premiums were cut in half when I moved here from Pennsylvania.
And I do know that Sioux Falls, S.D., was ranked
as recently as yesterday as "the nation's safest driving city." I've checked the Allstate Insurance study
that reported the Sioux Falls finding, and can't find Grand Forks (or Fargo, Bismarck or Minot) on the list of metro areas.
But I can find this quote in the Allstate press release linked to above: "Midwestern drivers also appear to heed the safety call. Five out of the 10 top cities are in America's heartland, according to the report."
More importantly, I also found this
very interesting item in USA Today. Remember that 2004 study in the American Journal of Public Health, the one that first identified Grand Forks as a top binge-drinking city in America? The above link takes you to USA Today's report on the story; click on it, and look at the chart of "highest binge drinking rates," the one that puts Grand Forks and San Antonio, Texas, right at the top. Which city is No. 5?
Well, whaddya know:
Sioux Falls, S.D.
How can it be that apparently beer-soaked, whiskey-sodden Sioux Falls nevertheless has the lowest car accident rate in America? How can it be, in fact, that "binge drinking is most prevalent in the upper Midwest," as the USA Today story notes, while Midwestern cities also rank low in accident rates, according to Allstate?
There's a huge disconnect there.
My guess is, it's true that Midwesterners on average drink more than, say, Californians. But it's also true -- again, I'm guessing -- that Midwestern drinking has fewer public-health consequences than the raw "drinks consumed on one occasion" statistic would suggest.
Here are some headlines that would make me change my mind: "Altru ER reports nation's highest incidence of acute alcohol poisoning." "Study: GF cirrhosis rates top the charts." "Drunk-driving arrests in GF far exceed national average." "Empty chairs: Absenteeism up as Red River students 'sleep it off,' teachers say."
In other words, if drinking in Grand Forks were a documented public-health problem, I'd agree that it'd be time to take very special notice. But I don't sense that the evidence is there, other than the infamous binge-drinking ranking.
Again, I could be persuaded otherwise. But for now, that lack of evidence, I think, is why people in town aren't paying much attention to the local task force's results.