Point of Last Drink aims to intervene with establishments that overserve
Minnesota is part of a nationwide effort to track where people receive alcoholic beverages prior to incidents involving law enforcement.
ROCHESTER, Minn. — Researchers at the Minnesota Department of Health recently quantified the harm of alcohol use in the state at $8 billion in 2019. That's according to data published earlier this month in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The study placed a dollar figure on the portion of societal costs imposed by alcohol ranging from health care, to lost productivity, crime, and motor vehicle crashes. In announcing that finding state health officials highlighted a data collection intervention in Minnesota known as Place of Last Drink , or POLD.
The POLD program was launched under a grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services in 2014 with the goal of tracking not just incidents of driving under the influence, but all manner of alcohol-related interactions with law enforcement including assaults, domestic violence and property crimes.
It does so by partnering with 19 community law enforcement entities who have agreed to gather information from individuals in custody about where they received their last serving of alcohol prior to an incident.
The goal is to identify establishments which may not recognize they served persons who were subsequently involved with alcohol related incidents, says Dr. Traci Toomey, a professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Minnesota.
"It's illegal in 48 states to serve someone that obviously appears to be intoxicated," Toomey said. "We call that overservice of alcohol ... It contributes to traffic crashes, traffic deaths, assaults in and outside of alcohol establishments and other problems."
Toomey is an expert on alcohol and public health who is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to study the POLD initiative in Minnesota.
She says she has no preliminary findings other than there is variability in how POLD is being implemented in the states, with some communities doing so more fully than others. Toomey says establishments over-serve customers for a variety of reasons.
Managers who look the other way
For many restaurants and bars staff training initiatives spotlight the role of servers and bartenders after customers leave their establishment intoxicated. Toomey says interventions would be more effective if they also emphasized the role of managers of liquor establishments.
"A lot of managers and management don't think there's going to be consequences for overservice, and are not setting the tone in their establishments that it's not OK to overserve."
"We've talked to many bartenders and servers over the years ... Sometimes they're trained and yet they have managers who tell them to serve that underage person, or you need to serve that regular customer who's intoxicated. So we have to make sure we focus on management, not just on the bartenders and servers on the front line."
Past interventions have entailed health officials meeting with management of problem establishments to develop a policy manual and help them design staff training materials.
"These data aren't used to say were going to take away a license," she said. "It's used to start a conversation ... Sometimes it's a simple matter of more training. Maybe they have drink specials that are running all night, so they suggest to limit those to a time period."
Another difference about POLD in Minnesota she says is that it seeks to track the place of last drink beyond just bars and restaurants, to include houses, private parties, stadiums or community festivals. All come with different challenges, Toomey said.
"I've done research on alcohol service at community festivals, which are one to three plus days long with lots of alcohol being served by people who may or may not be trained."
"There's a high likelihood of overservice and underage sales at these events," she said. "They have been attributed to everything from people peeing in surrounding yards, to fights, to traffic crashes. So those have a high risk to them."
Toomey says events at stadiums are similarly problematic because it's impossible to track individual patrons and because huge crowds leave the venue at the same time.
Then there are the unique challenges of stemming overservice of alcohol in nightclubs and pubs.
"Clubs tend to be big and crowded from a server's standpoint," she said. "It can be difficult to see how much a person is drinking, because people are moving around so much. With pubs, they're smaller and maybe there are regulars. That brings up another challenge because management doesn't like to cut off regulars as much."
Private homes and party houses pose their own challenges.
"I have great empathy for servers and bartenders," Toomey said. "I was a server once and I think these are really hard jobs."
"It's been an interesting career," she said. "I'm not anti-alcohol or anti-business. But I do hope to understand how do we put some controls in place to prevent people getting injured during an outing, or getting sick from alcohol use."
"I think about every time I read a story about four young people in a car crash ... and those officers who go clean up the accident and have to call four sets of parents to tell them that their kids died. My research is hoping to try to lead to fewer events like that happening."