Deterring underage drinkers

The Baltimore Sun

On a Thursday night in Towson, just up the road from one of the state's largest college campuses, the Greene Turtle tavern is slowly filling up.

The incoming customers, clad in T-shirts and sandals, know the routine: They present their driver's licenses to show they are old enough to drink. But the doorman does more than just eyeball the date of birth.

He inserts the cards into a gray device that resembles a machine used to swipe credit card charges.

"People coming in with fake IDs, they're nervous as it is," said the doorman, Matt Gwin. "When they see something like that, they're just not going to come in here."

As the school year gets under way, thousands of college students in Maryland are, naturally, going to head to the bars. But at least in this college town, some might find it harder to get in.

In a campaign to crack down on underage drinking, Baltimore County officials are pushing bars and liquor stores to use electronic card readers that can detect bogus or doctored driver's licenses. The devices are in growing use in California, Philadelphia and, more locally, Montgomery County.

Baltimore County police have increased enforcement efforts in Towson and have started routinely going into bars to check customer IDs. And the county state's attorney's office has agreed not to prosecute some underage drinkers if they testify against the bars that served them.

The campaign comes as the number of citations issued to Towson University students for alcohol use or possession has doubled in recent years, and after the alcohol-related death of a 19-year-old student in February. Three Towson students died during the past school year after drinking and using prescription drugs.

The aim, county officials say, is not just to make the town safer but to reduce the nuisance crimes that degrade its neighborhoods.

"It begins with drunken kids," said Thomas Minkin, chairman of the Baltimore County liquor board. "You get rowdiness, public urination. And it all stems from that issue of the bars serving these underage kids."

The campaign is part of an evolving approach that focuses on how environmental factors contribute to underage drinking, said Elaine Lawton of the county Health Department's Bureau of Substance Abuse.

"There is a saying that you can't put the entire blame on young people for the majority of underage drinking problems, any more than you can blame a fish who dies in a polluted stream," said Lawton, quoting a motto of FACE, a national alcohol research group.

The card readers, which generally cost $1,000 to $1,500 each, read the magnetic strips on driver's licenses, display the customer's age and indicate whether the card is unreadable, a sign that it's a fake.

But the manufacturers say the scanners are only as effective as the person using them and that they do not solve the problem of an underage person using someone else's ID.

Michael M. Gimbel, director of substance abuse education at Sheppard Pratt Health System, said any novel way to reduce alcohol abuse should be welcome. He pointed to a national survey indicating that 1,700 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related, unintentional injuries.

"It's not looked at the same as the heroin problem in Baltimore City, yet the problem is much bigger," Gimbel said.

Another national survey found that 19 percent of those between the ages of 12 and 20 - or 7.8 million youths - were "binge drinkers."

In Towson, county police Lt. Jan R. Brown said officials were taken aback when, as the county executive and other government leaders toured the area one night not long ago, the streets and sidewalks were crowded with disorderly students who were obviously intoxicated.

During one sweep in Towson, police issued citations to 43 people for underage drinking, Brown said.

Police frequently respond to reports of alcohol poisoning, Brown said, and intoxicated students become easy targets for thieves.

At Towson University, three students died during the past school year after drinking and using prescription drugs, Brown said. One was a 19-year-old who, according to the autopsy, died of oxycodone and alcohol intoxication. The student had been drinking at a party at his off-campus apartment, a police report shows.

Last school year, 614 citations for alcohol use or possession were issued by campus and county police to Towson University students - double the number four years ago, said Jana Varwig, associate vice president for student affairs. Varwig attributed the increase to a larger student population, more freshmen living on campus and stepped-up enforcement.

Ryan Assadi, 19, a Towson sophomore who serves in student government, said students were shaken by the 19-year-old's death.

"We realized it's our responsibility as leaders of the student body to educate how to drink properly. That was a horrible loss for all of us," he said.

Lawton said she learned two years ago of a Montgomery County program that requires government-owned liquor stores there to scan customer IDs.

Lawton's office purchased four card readers at a discount from California-based Tricom Card Technologies for $3,600 with a state grant to lend to local bars and liquor stores. Towson University bought a scanner to use at events where alcohol is served, Lawton said. The Charles Village Pub in Towson also has a card reader.

Mark Baughman, Tricom's owner, said the devices deter underage drinkers from trying to get into a bar. They also protect bar and store owners from charges of serving someone underage if they can show, through data stored in the device, that the person presented a valid ID.

Other cities, including Philadelphia and Ontario, Calif., require bars and nightclubs to use the devices.

Concerns have been raised about software sold with the devices that enable bars to store information from driver's licenses in a database. Some bars have used the information to mail flyers promoting their establishments, Baughman said.

Three states - New Hampshire, Nebraska and Texas - have banned the collection of data from driver's licenses, according to news reports.

While Maryland law does not prohibit the practice, the state's Consumer Protection Act would seem to require bars to disclose to customers that they are storing data, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general said.

Managers at the Greene Turtle in Towson said fewer underage students have showed up at the bar since it began using a county-owned scanner several months ago.

On a recent Thursday night, a young crowd, including a group of college lacrosse players, watched football on the bar's big-screen televisions and swigged beer from plastic cups.

General manager Jerry Mazurowski said the Greene Turtle still typically turns away 20 to 30 people a night on suspicion that they are under 21, adding that the bar wants to show authorities that it is serious about cracking down on underage drinking.

At the entrance, some coming in stared curiously as the doorman inserted their IDs into the box.

Lindsey Wallace, a graduate student from Virginia who was with a friend from Towson, said she didn't mind the device.

"It keeps all the young kids out," Wallace said.

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