Can Selling Beer Cut Down on Public Drunkenness? (Ep. 91): Full Transcript

Kai RYSSDAL: Time now for the little Freakonomics Radio.  It’s that moment every couple of weeks we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and blog of the same name.  It is “the hidden side of everything.”  Dubner, how are ya?

Stephen J. DUBNER: Hey Kai. I’m good.  How are you?

I’m alright.  Getting by.

DUBNER: So the new college football season is upon us now.  It’s always exciting — the unbelievable, sheer athleticism, the marching bands and the freshmen barfing all over the stadium.

RYSSDAL: OK, wait.  What?  That’s not what I was expecting.

DUBNER: Yeah, that’s what I want to talk to you about today.  Let me start with Oliver Luck.  He is the athletic director at West Virginia University.  That’s what he got used to seeing at football games there.

“People drinking far too much at pre-game parties and tailgate parties before games. Sneaking alcohol into games. Leaving at halftime to drink even more and come back into the game.”

DUBNER: Now, Oliver Luck happens to be the father of quarterback Andrew Luck, who is this year’s No. 1 NFL draft pick – new QB for the Indianapolis Colts.  Oliver Luck was an NFL quarterback himself for a few years.  And now, as a college athletic director, he learned that most colleges, in keeping with their academic mission, do not sell alcohol at football games. But, not surprisingly, that doesn’t stop everybody, including students from drinking. Especially because some schools, West Virginia among them, had what’s called a “pass-out” policy.

RYSSDAL: A what?

DUBNER: Yes, you heard me right, but you’re thinking differently.  This does not have anything to do with passing out from drinking too much.  It has to do with the fact that you are allowed to pass out of the stadium and back in during the game – which means you can go out and drink.

RYSSDAL: This whole thing is not shocking, right?  That’s the point?

DUBNER: It is not.  But that doesn’t mean you have to be happy about it or even tolerate it. So last year Oliver Luck proposed two things: one, that West Virginia get rid of that “pass-out” policy and that it try something different inside the stadium.

LUCK: “So I began to think a little bit counterintuitively that actually selling beer at our stadium would actually help us gain control.”

RYSSDAL: So here’s where I need you to explain the counterintuitive thing: You get some money from the beer sales, but how does it help you control the problem if you’re actually selling the beverage?

DUBNER: Let’s do the money first.  West Virginia did clear about $500,000 from beer sales that first year.  They project it will probably double this year – that’s nice.  But, you’re right, now that you’re selling beer in the stadium, you might think you’re going to have more alcohol trouble – more arrests for underage drinking, more violence. That’s what the campus police at West Virginia last year, in the first year were prepared for. But that is not what happened here. Here’s police chief Bob Roberts:

Bob ROBERTS: “In 2010, we made 117 arrests on game days. In this past year, we only made 79. See, that’s almost a 35 percent reduction in arrests we made.”

KAI: Which is good.  So is Luck trying to sell this to other schools?  Get them to try it?

DUBNER: I wouldn’t say he’s an evangelist, quite.  But when they see what’s happening there and they come for help, he gives it.  The University of Minnesota wanted to try selling beer in the stadium.  It had to get, however, support from the state legislature first and Luck did talk to some legislative aides along the way.  Now, as a result, this fall Minnesota will be starting a two-year trial of beer sales.

RYSSDAL: Which totally makes sense, right?  You can drink fifty feet outside the stadium gates, but you can’t inside.  I mean, come on.

DUBNER: Look, this is complicated and you don’t want to make light of it.  Alcohol abuse is a very major problem on college campuses and elsewhere. And the idea of making more alcohol available in more places may strike some people as ridiculous. But what I like about this approach is that, when you’ve got a problem, you can stick your head in the sand or you can acknowledge the problem exists and try to come up with a new kind of solution.  That, I think, is what we’re talking about here — listen, again, to West Virginia University police chief Bob Roberts:

ROBERTS: “You know, you might as well face reality and try to control it and at least keep the environment as safe as you can.”

DUBNER: How’s that for a motto, Kai?  “Controlling reality” one day at a time.  I like that.

RYSSDAL: Stephen Dubner, he tries to do that every day of his life. is the web site.  He is back in a couple of weeks. See ya, man.

DUBNER: Thanks so much, Kai.

Evi L. Bloggerlady

It is really a no brainer. The NFL does it. You rarely see people falling down drunk at the games because you would get ejected. Beer is sold at $8 a glass (in plastic of course). Mixed drinks only in lounge areas. They stop selling in the 4th quarter.


You really can't tell if selling beer cut down on drunkenness because they changed two variables at once. Should have tried killing the pass out policy without selling beer first. Then they could measure the arrests and also the attendance. If attendance went down (I doubt) then they could add beer sales and remeasure.


I've seen a good example of this with cricket in Sydney, Australia.
For a 'Test Match' there's a full stadium of 40,000 fans with full-strength alcohol being served for 6 hours. No major problems seem to occur.
For a 'One Day Match' there's a full stadium of 40,000 fans with low-alcohol beverages served for 6 hours. Far more anti-social behavior, fights, arrests, etc.

Clearly, for games where low-alcohol beverages are served, a lot of people are drinking (as much as they can) before the match and also smuggling alcohol into the ground. And you can't really smuggle beer in, so it's high strength spirits.

Owen Townes

Back during my school days at one of the top-ranked party schools in the nation, I picked up some shifts working "security" at the football games. We kept out what alcohol we could -water bottles had to be factory sealed, search purses, etc. But what that really meant was people coming in went with easily concealed flasks and other smaller containers (in another example: a friend of mine snuck in to a concert with an IV bag of vodka taped to his thigh). Which means that instead of drinking mostly-water 6% ABV beer, the crowd was knocking back Bacardi 141, getting really drunk and really dehydrated. Making less potent alcohol more readily available would seem to remove the incentives for smuggling in liquor, and a price point could probably worked out so that the attendees would drink beer, but not enough to become a problem. My guess is the professional sports venues have already done all that math.