Monday, March 22, 2010

The Lincoln (Nebraska) Miracle that Wasn't

You have probably heard about the supposed miracle that has happened in Lincoln, Nebraska.   At the University of Nebraska--Lincoln, a combination of tough laws, heavy-handed enforcement, and strong public support (from community members over 21) has led to a decrease in "binge" drinking and associated consequences since 1997.  Or at least that's what they're telling us.

UNL is a dry campus, and has been such for a while, but the surrounding town has been anything but dry.  But then the crackdowns happened, apparently with a special focus on underage drinking.  Police, college officals, and landlords all teamed up to reduce underage drinking and out of control parties, and the consequences meted out for either are severe (at least compared to other college towns).   Lives and careers have been ruined to one degree or another as a result.  In fact, it's become a virtual witch-hunt that would likely make McCarthy himself blush.

The crackdowns are actually part of a larger anti-alcohol program known as A Matter of Degree, funded by grants from the neo-temperance Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and directed by Dr. Richard Yoast.  Ten colleges around the country, including UNL, participated in the AMOD program since 1997 and it is still ongoing.

So was it worth it?  Well, if you dig a little deeper you will find that according to its own police department, the city of Lincoln had a record high number of DUI arrests in 2009.  In fact, 2008 and 2009 were the two worst years, even surpassing the old record from 1992.  Of course, analyzing arrest rates poses a chicken-or-egg problem; it could simply be tougher enforcement, not more drunk driving.  However, student surveys show that the percentage of students who report driving after drinking actually doubled from 2003 to 2006.  We speculate that many of the parties have simply shifted outside of the city limits, so party-goers drive there, get drunk, and drive back.  If that's success, we'd hate to see what failure looks like.

And the decrease in "binge" drinking according to surveys was from 62% of students in 1997 to 45%, meaning that they went from well above average to merely average.  No better than average in fact, and average is still quite high.  Remember too that correlation does not equal causation.  Part of it could be that prospective students who are most likely to be party animals simply choose other colleges instead after hearing about what a police state Lincoln has become.  And high school student drinking in Lincoln is still a persistent problem, one that most likely will remain as long as the police continue disproportionally targeting 18-20 year olds.  (Of course, Lincoln is clearly not the only place in the country where this is an issue)

As for the crackdowns purportedly reducing crime, LPD crime statistics for the city as a whole appear to debunk that claim as well, at least for the most serious crimes like homicide, rape, and aggravated assault.

Thus, it appears that it was a rather hollow victory overall.  While there are some good aspects to their overall strategy of reducing high-risk drinking, it would probably be best if Nebraska decided to lower the drinking age to 18 (it actually used to be 19 until the 1980s) and targeted the actual troublemakers rather than those who are simply drinking and/or at the wrong place at the wrong time.  But the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation would never even consider that, given their apparent bias against alcohol.

In fact, the rather expensive AMOD program itself is highly questionable at best.  A 2004 study found that in the first five years of implementation, little to no change in high-risk drinking (or its consequences) was seen in the aggregate.  Five out of the 10 schools that participated (including UNL) did see some improvement, but it was hard to tease out what actually caused what due to all the variables involved.  The RWJF, of course, put a positive spin on the results, as does the neo-temperance crowd overall.  But the rest of us can clearly see that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes.

So let's make a toast to Richard Yoast.

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