Alcohol Industry Influences College Drinking Program


Florida State University’s (FSU’s) efforts to curb college drinking reveals the lengths to which the alcohol industry will go to enforce its own philosophy regarding prevention, the Wall Street Journal reported Oct. 14.

At FSU, three students have died from alcohol-related causes since 1999. This year, a Harvard School of Public Health survey found that 57 percent of FSU undergraduates said they drink solely “to get drunk.” The survey also found that 53 percent of FSU students binge drink.

In addition, FSU was named the nation’s top “party school” by the popular college guide, the Princeton Review, for the second time in four years.

With a five-year, $700,000 grant from the Princeton, N.J.-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), FSU formed the Partnership for Alcohol Responsibility in 1999. Its goal was to develop a plan that would prohibit “ladies drink free” nights and other discount specials, ban underage students from entering bars, and toughen penalties for establishments serving anyone under age 21.

The coalition was comprised of faculty members, students, civic leaders, bar owners, and others. FSU President Talbot D’Alemberte had urged the coalition to involve Susie Busch-Transou, vice-president of Tri-Eagle Sales, the local Anheuser distributorship and daughter of the chairman of Anheuser-Busch Cos. The group declined to name her to the partnership; however, Busch-Transou attended all of the coalition’s public meetings.

The coalition also approached the local alcohol industry for its support to curb excessive student drinking. Instead, the local alcohol industry used its money and political clout to push for alternative measures.

Tri-Eagle and Anheuser Busch successfully lobbied for passage of a bill that toughened drunk-driving penalties in Florida and made it a felony to manufacture fake IDs. But Busch-Transou objected to the partnership’s plan to ban happy hours and other discounts. She argued that the regulations aimed at addressing problem drinkers also unfairly punished responsible drinkers.

Although the partnership’s activities generated a great deal of media attention, the public pressure failed to convince bar owners to curb promotions aimed at students. Daniel Skiles, who ran the partnership, said bar owners told him they would be happy to stop the promotions, but not unless all others did the same. Bar owners – not the local alcohol distributors – eat the profits for drink discounts, and although they said would make more money if they stopped the specials, they won’t risk losing business to other bars that don’t.

In 2000, FSU faced another challenge. The local alcohol industry formed its own group, the Responsible Hospitality Council, to urge the state to enforce existing alcohol laws rather than create new ones. Bars also were encouraged to soften advertisements of drink specials, and to train servers to decline serving underage customers.

The same year, a top Anheuser-Busch official met with D’Alemberte, Skiles, and other FSU officials at the request of Busch-Transou. The executive presented a proposal to fund a “social norms” program at FSU that would encourage drinking in moderation. FSU agreed to take grant money from the brewer.

During the meeting, FSU also agreed not to support any new state laws that would limit youth drinking. The position contradicted the requirements of the RWJF grant, as well as the strategy advocated by Skiles.

Skiles said that previous studies found that policy changes like increasing the drinking age to 21 were more effective in curbing alcohol misuse than social-norms programs. Because 85 percent of FSU students live off-campus, Skiles said lobbying for a change in state and local alcohol laws would be more effective.

But D’Alemberte worried that pushing for new alcohol laws might imperil state funding for other FSU projects, such as a new medical school. “I certainly know the power of the beverage industry in the legislature,” said D’Alemberte, a former state legislator.

As expected, when the partnership unveiled its strategic plan in 2001, it was immediately criticized by the alcohol industry. The industry claimed that the measures would raise alcohol prices.

“Problems cannot be legislated out of existence,” the industry said in a letter to the partnership. “That was tried over 80 years ago with Prohibition.”

D’Alemberte and other FSU officials also voiced displeasure with Skiles, especially after an MSNBC segment on campus drinking focused on FSU. He was later removed from his role as spokesman for the partnership.

“They did not like it appearing as if there was a drinking problem at the school,” said Skiles, who resigned from FSU in 2002.

Despite the coalition’s efforts, the drinking culture among FSU students has remained strong. With more than 150 bars, restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores and supermarkets within a two mile radius of the campus selling beer, wine, and hard liquor, alcohol is still very much part of the university’s social life. The campus newspaper continues to devote considerable ad space for drink specials at local bars.

The partnership has a new director and chairman and is in the process of rewriting its strategic plan. FSU officials acknowledged that the school is making slow progress against student drinking — bars are checking IDs more often, and some have quit serving free 21st-birthday drinks. And this year, the school didn’t make the Princeton Review’s top-20 party school list.

Skiles, the former director, quotes advice from the website of the American Medical Association, which was helping with the RWJF efforts: “If you’re being effective, sooner or later the alcohol beverage industry is going to come down on you.”

Back To Parents | Home

Filed under: Parents :

Back to top of page - Back to Parents

Powered by WordPress