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City’s alcohol game-prize ordinance is ridiculous

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 10, 2010 7:30 AM

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Seven years have come and gone since an Iowa City ordinance banned games and contests involving drinking or winning alcohol. While the prohibition has never led to a citation, that could soon change.

Assistant City Attorney Eric Goers recently sent a notice to all Iowa City liquor-license holders, alerting them to the city ordinance.

Raising fuss over this irrelevant matter is evidence of over-regulation and micromanagement on the city’s part. Let local businesses pocket a few extra dollars, and let adults freely participate in mostly harmless entertainment.

According to city code, to do any of the following is unlawful:

“Encourage or permit any game or contest or tournament of any kind which involves drinking any alcoholic liquor, wine, or beer or the awarding of alcoholic liquor, wine, or beer as a prize.”

On its face, the ordinance appears to be tailored to prevent bar owners from hosting drinking games — “beer pong” events, for example. But its polysemous language allows city officials to easily translate its meaning to gaming machines as well.

Goers said gaming machines’ prize tickets have two values — the value of the paper on which it’s printed and its value in exchange for goods and services.

“Obviously, neither the bar, the patron, nor the city is concerned with the former,” he said. “It’s the value of exchange for goods or services that everyone cares about.

“That’s the real prize. That prize cannot be alcohol.”

Oddly enough, state statute permits gaming machines’ distribution of vouchers redeemable for alcohol. However, Iowa City’s ordinance narrows state code in this instance.

“In this case, the gaming devices are reportedly legal under state law,” Goers said. “But awarding alcohol as a prize is illegal under Iowa City ordinances, so Iowa City establishments may not do so.”

The city concerning itself with such trivial things as gaming machines is emblematic of its general approach to alcohol. Eliminating alcohol prizes won’t change anything. Binge drinking will continue, and piecemeal enforcement of ill-considered ordinances will continue to fail. The city has yet to come up with a comprehensive solution to the drinking problem, instead choosing to sporadically pass or enforce ineffective regulations.

With the city’s latest crackdown, it’s relevant to note other provisions that aren’t enforced as well. According to city code, it’s unlawful to increase the volume of alcohol in a drink without increasing the price. Another provision prohibits serving more than two drinks at one time to any one person.

Both of these are routinely violated, yet consistently ignored.

Legalities aside, banning gaming machines that award alcohol as a prize is a prime example of the city’s misguided attempts to regulate alcohol behavior. Supposed solutions such as enforcing a nearly decade-old ordinance against alcohol prizes are ineffective Band-Aids suturing an incessantly bleeding wound.

The City Council should strike this ordinance from the city code and get real about solving the drinking problem.


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