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Last call for drink specials?

Concerned about excessive drinking among college students, Tampa moves to ban special drink pricing.

Published September 14, 2006

TAMPA - Ladies drink free. All you can drink. $1 well drinks.

Such drink specials are the bread-and-butter of party animals, but city officials want them to be toast.

Mayor Pam Iorio is looking to craft an ordinance that would prohibit drink specials.

"The city is concerned that such special drink pricing is being used to target people of college age, and encourages excessive and dangerous drinking," wrote city attorney David Smith in a letter sent Wednesday to Attorney General Charlie Crist.

The city asked Crist for his opinion on whether state law would pre-empt such an ordinance.

A spokesman for Crist said his office hadn't yet received the letter, and it would take about 30 days to develop a response.

But Tom Butler, deputy press secretary for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which includes the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, said he thinks the ordinance is within the city's rights.

"Something like that is outside our jurisdiction. There are no state laws interfering," Butler said.

As of January 2003, about 27 states had laws regulating drink specials, according to a study commissioned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those laws range from a ban on serving another cocktail until the previous one has been consumed to prohibiting the sale of drinks at reduced prices, such as the classic $1 well drinks.

Bob Ruday, dean of students at the University of Tampa, has been meeting regularly with Iorio's chief of staff, Darrell Smith, as well as other education and law enforcement officials, to brainstorm on the issue.

The University of Tampa, he said, is inundated with fliers for promotions such as "Bladder Buster Wednesdays," which pitch free beer and shots until someone goes to the bathroom.

"We try to keep them off campus because all they do is promote high-risk drinking," he said.

Seven students have suffered alcohol poisoning since classes began at the university a little more than two weeks ago, Ruday said. Three ended up in a hospital. Most of those students, he said, had been drinking off campus.

Excessive drinking, he noted, leads to other problems, such as vandalism and sexual assaults.

Tom Kane, director of residence services at the University of South Florida, called alcohol abuse one of the biggest problems on college campuses.

"Things that students wouldn't do at any other time, they get a couple drinks in them and they make mistakes," Kane said.

Drink specials make the problem worse.

"It's like going to a buffet restaurant," he said. "You don't go there to diet. It encourages over-indulgence."

Ellen Snelling, who co-chairs the Tampa Alcohol Coalition, said she'd like to see a state law banning drink specials. But she's helping with the city's efforts.

"My understanding is it's easier to do at a city or county level because at the state level there are more interest groups you're going to be battling," she said.

Snelling said her organization tried several years ago to encourage bars in Ybor City to voluntarily curb drink specials.

"It just didn't happen," she said. "That's why it needs to be an ordinance."

Vince Pardo, executive director of the Ybor City Development Corp., said he favors limiting drink promotions. But he draws a distinction between a two-for-one happy hour at a Bennigan's and the three-for-one specials found in Ybor clubs, some of which admit 18-year-olds.

It's complicated, he said. "If you rule out one, you have to rule out the other."

The drink specials, he said, are clearly an effective marketing tool for Ybor clubs. And competition encourages more and more generous drink specials.

"If everyone stopped offering them at the same time, it would be less of an issue," he said.

Bill Gieseking, marketing director for Pepin Distributing Company, agreed.

Such an ordinance "would level the playing field" and stop irresponsible promotions, he said.

Still, Gieseking isn't convinced an ordinance would stop binge drinking among college students.

Furthermore, he doesn't believe the ordinance would be effective.

"Bars and retailers are very clever about how they go about things," he said. "They'll find a variety of ways around the ordinance to attract consumers."

[Last modified September 17, 2006, 13:22:27]

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