The Ban on Drinking in Public and Its Limited Effects

by Renard Teipelke

It has always been an issue in urban politics: Should alcohol consumption in public be prohibited or allowed? For various reasons concerning a place’s safety, tidiness, and peace, many actors in different countries have become outspoken advocates for this ‘public prohibition.’ Having experienced the US-American and European cases, I would like to draw some conclusions from my observations.

First of all, a ban on drinking in public can be a nuisance of enforcement since ‘delinquents’ hardly ever have to fear serious consequences. Enforcing this law/regulation means a never-ending task for police, and taxpayers’ money is spent on this marginally effective task.

A second aspect is the cultural dimension. Some people argue that certain cultural traditions are tightly connected to the consumption of alcohol, such as watching a soccer game and drinking beer or having a picnic on a Sunday afternoon and drinking wine along with eating cheese. Banning alcohol from these practices might bring a change over the long term but also dampen positive feelings associated with practices, thus being damaging to the preservation of rich cultural traditions.

Another aspect of prohibited alcohol consumption in public is exemplified by ‘US-American-college-style’ house parties. Since parties with alcohol consumption in public are hardly ever allowed by local administrations, (young) people are forced into (their) homes to celebrate. This often shifts the problem of noise violation from public places to residential buildings. Furthermore, the government and the public lose control over what happens behind closed doors.

At the same time, a culture of house parties inevitably leads to an abandonment of public places by the people concerned. While officials might have the revitalization of public places in mind, kind the opposite could result from a ban on public drinking. Since such a policy aims at particular age and social groups, a varied make-up of users of public places might be impeded.

A fifth aspect related to the issue highlights the biggest flaw of an anti-alcohol policy for public places. Prohibiting people from drinking in public does not prevent the outcomes of alcohol consumption at all. Besides the hosts of house parties, people normally commute to the places where they consume alcohol and typically go home afterwards. They will necessarily ‘cross’ public places – walking to the nearest taxi station, staggering along the esplanade, going by public transport, or even worse, driving their own car under the influence of alcohol.

What becomes clear is that it is a question of norms and values, cultural practices and social habits. If decision makers identify the problem of excessive drinking (in public) within their society, they have to turn to more promising ways of advocating a change in those practices. Learning from the examples of speeding, drugging, or music downloading, they can be sure that prohibition is only one tool – and often not the most effective one to bring about an enduring change to particular cultural features.

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