A law banning the sale of 190-proof grain alcohol in Maryland was created to battle excessive drinking among college students, but according to one state senator, the ban treats the symptoms of the problem rather than the cause.
Senator Edward Reilly (R-33) said the ban will have no effect on college students. Reilly said college students will find other products to replace grain alcohol.
“What we’re doing is addressing symptoms, not the root problem,” Reilly said. “If 191-proof alcohol is not available, then they’ll use 141 rum or 101 gin, or whatever alcohol they can get their hands on.”
The law, sponsored by issue of high risk drinking Senator Richard Madaleno, went into effect this month.Reilly said he voted against the bill.
“Restricting people’s choices is not the way to solve this problem,” Reilly said. “Why didn’t we choose 151? It was a fairly arbitrary level of potency and I don’t think it’s going to address the core problem. The manufacturer has a 181 product. So what does that mean, next year we ban 181? Then 171? Then 151? If you’re going to ban alcohol, ban alcohol.”
Frostburg State University President Jonathan Gibralter said he strongly supports the ban. Gibralter is one of several college presidents across Maryland who expressed concerned about the drinking problem among college students to the state Senate.
“About 1800 college students drink themselves to death every year, and that doesn’t include all the other harms associated with high risk drinking, like assault, sexual assault, and other things,” Gibralter said. “I think the reason grain alcohol is particularly dangerous is that students don’t know they’re consuming it.”
Gibralter said grain alcohol is odorless, tasteless and ultimately undetectable.
“A lot of the time, because it’s so cheap, grain alcohol can be consumed for 40 cents a shot,” Gibralter said. “The problem is that a lot of young people, particularly college students, find themselves very inebriated or unconscious or in the ER without knowing how they got there.”
Gibralter said he is opposed not to alcohol, but to high risk drinking.
“(The ban is) taking a form of alcohol that’s 200 proof out of the hands of especially underage college students who don’t even know they’re consuming it and don’t have any experience with alcohol consumption,” Gibralter said.
Gibralter said the total tax revenue from the sale of grain alcohol in Maryland is very low, so banning it does not have much of an economic impact.
Senator Karen Montgomery (D-14) said she is also in favor of keeping the ban.
“This is the kind of thing that leads to date rape,” Montgomery said. “One drink of this stuff and you hardly know you’re getting alcohol and you will be drunk to the point of unconsciousness.”
Montgomery said plainspoken, direct education is necessary to address the college drinking problem.
Reilly said though he doesn’t support the ban, he is very concerned about the effects of college drinking.
“I’m worried about traffic accidents from that activity, I’m worried about the sexual assaults that happen on campus, the loss of study time and impact on grades and career,” Reilly said. “I want to make it very clear that I am just as concerned as Senator Madaleno about drinking on college campuses and off campuses. But the banning of one product is not the solution to the problem.”
Reilly said a better solution to the high risk drinking problem would be for the Board of Regents to make all public college campuses across the state alcohol-free and require comprehensive alcohol education.
“(We need) a program to teach (students) about the effects, sexual attacks and incidents and the effect on grades and career,” Reilly said. “A lot of schools already have some orientation classes, but I think it has to be uniform for all incoming freshmen and transfer students.”
Reilly said educating students about the link between alcohol and sexual assault is essential.
“If you look at 100 cases of sexual assault, I would say 95 percent have to do with alcohol,” he said. “It’s not a case of only women having to be more careful, it’s a case of everyone having to be more responsible and aware and observant, and not just for themselves but for their friends. Everyone has to be held accountable for what they do.”
Gibralter also said it takes comprehensive alcohol prevention and education programs to change the drinking culture on and off college campuses.
“I think college students are changing their behavior and I think it’s because of comprehensive alcohol prevention and education programs,” Gibralter said. “For example, the program at Frostburg has reduced the reported high risk drinking rate.”
Gibralter said in addition to the Alcohol.Edu online class all Frostburg students are required to take, Frostburg distributes an anonymous survey to students about their drinking habits every three years.
“Not only have the numbers of students engaging in high risk drinking gone down, but when students do go out and drink, they’re drinking less,” Gibralter said. “They’re watching over each other a little bit better at parties. Parties are getting smaller. I think it’s changing, but it’s a hard culture to change. It really takes an entire comprehensive program to change that culture.”
Reilly said zero tolerance policies practiced by police and college administrators also help address the college drinking problem. Lawmakers cannot control what happens outside of a school environment, he said, but they can make sure students clearly understand the public policy within it.
“You can say you can have fun on our campus without drinking,” Reilly said. “It would challenge the universities to come up with fun activities to do on campus. It’s going to take work and effort and energy, but if we continue the same old tired thought process, we’re still going to have people damaged by the effects of overindulging in alcohol.”
Gibralter said though Reilly’s point about the ban not changing college students’ behavior is correct, the ban isn’t meant to do so.
“Banning grain alcohol is not intended to change the behavior of college students,” Gibralter said. “Removing grain alcohol was intended to prevent college students from unknowingly ending up dead.”
Gibralter said though college drinking and grain alcohol are related, it’s important to look at the two topics independently.
“I think that for people to make the assertion that eliminating grain alcohol is not going to eliminate high risk drinking, I think they’re right,” Gibralter said. “But at least we know we’ve removed one substance that we know is extremely dangerous.“