Binge drinking – Minnesota style

It was hard not to miss the collective shrug of shoulders Minnesota gave to a report this week that showed binge drinking is still a sport of choice for nearly one out of 3 high school students, even though it came a month after another study dropped the state from its lofty perch as the healthiest state, largely because of the penchant of our kids to drink like there’s no tomorrow.

And even when Jenna Foellmi, 20, of Brownsville put an exclamation point on the survey a day later by starting her drinking in the morning, continuing in the evening, and dropping dead by morning, Minnesota — and that includes us in the media — were still far more consumed with the future of a bear and a couple of cubs in Duluth.

There wasn’t much chatter about binge drinking this week, even though Foellmi put the problem in stark terms, a month after Rissa Amen-Reif, 22, of Eden Prairie was killed in Mankato (drinking was involved), and a couple of months after Amanda Jax died in Mankato with a .46 blood alcohol content after a night of binge drinking.

“I guess a lot more people do it than you’d think. A lot of people get over the top drunk, trying to show off, and stuff like that.” Duluth high school sophomore Malory Dunbar told WDIO TV. It’s a comment echoed by other kids this week: it’s worse than you think.

A comment from Winona police chief Frank Pomeroy in Saturday’s Star Tribune was illuminating about why we’ve been unable to come up with a way to halt the carnage:

Pomeroy said, “personal responsibility” has to be emphasized in cases such as this.

Chief Pomeroy appeared to criticize those who did nothing while Ms.Foellmi was dying. Nobody did anything to stop Ms. Jax either. He’d like to see a host ordinance that holds party hosts responsible for underage drinking, according to the Winona Daily News. It’s something Chaska adopted last September, but not without a fight.

But it’s clear that a solution is hard to come by. Got any?

  • Candace L.

    No solutions, but some ideas. The “good” kids are sometimes the MOST at risk for dangerous decsisions because they have the least experience. It sounds like she was from a small town and was not a regular partier. She had no idea how that much drinking would affect her body. She likely had low tolerance.

    I also believe that the others with her share a load of responsibility. We all need to look out for each other and not just ourselves. Our individualistic society emphasizes “looking ouf for #1”, but the truth is we all need to stick together for safety. That is why we live in communities.

  • Linda Reed

    Well, we have raised five good kids and none of ours did anything like this. The key is to set that example and get them involved in healthy activities.

    All of mine were active in church and sports. We never missed family dinners, either. It will be interesting what comes out about this poor girl. I feel so badly for her family and what they are going through this Christmas. May the Lord bless them.

  • Bob Collins

    In many ways, that’s what’s scary. These were good kids, apparently raised well. The woman who died last week was an honors graduate from her high school, major in biochemistry and molecular biology at Winona. In high school, she was in the National Honor Society, a member of SADD. She was on the dean’s list at Winona and in the last semester went on a church mission trip to Africa, painting a hospital in Tanzania.

    And yet… she’s dead.

    It’s entirely possible, I suppose, that this is the frustration. If you could just chalk it up to bad kids doing what bad kids do, we could take comfort in that least our kids aren’t bad kids. But it is sounding very much like this is something good kids do, too.

    It makes it so very hard to fathom, that it becomes difficult to explain, and it feels impossible to stop.

    Or maybe it’s just me…

    What do you think?

  • Elizabeth Tobias

    sorry – I can’t get this to separate paragraphs —Prevention must be multi-fasceted for a problem which is so complex. “Talking about it” isn’t enough. Having kids “involved” in some program isn’t enough. “Going to church” is not enough.

    —-Educate parents. Parents are responsible for their children getting to the age of 16-or-so with an understanding of the consequences of their actions. (Not teachers; not schools; not social programs.) Parents must be educated. Threatening them with criminal prosecution is impractical. They need to understand how to get their kids to avoid drinking. “Education” needs to start with parents. (Preferably before they become parents.)

    —-Excessive drinking is a public health problem, not (just) an individual one. Public Health must be reinforced, and given a mandate to develop a unified method, which all groups combating this problem can then apply. This would assured children (and others) are getting consistant, accurate, unbiased information. This should also emphasize for everyone that it is, indeed, a Public problem, not just the kid-next-door-and-certainly-not-mine.

    —-Differentiation between “drinking” and “excessive drinking”. All too often they are presented as the same thing. “Teenage drinking” – is this truly the same thing as “teenage binge drinking”? Should they be treated – socially and legally – identically?

    —-Greater coverage by the Media of “didn’t-quite-kill-herself” stories is needed. Too much attention is given to the extremes: DUI deaths, drinking to death. It is too easy for a teenager to read this story and think “well, I don’t do that”. And she is right, she doesn’t, so she doesn’t see any relevance to her own risky behavior. Great, they don’t binge drink, how about those who drink themselves into a coma? Who get permanent medical problems from heavy drinking?

    —-I was so relieved to see the “Personal Responsibility” demand from the police. I was then so completely disappointed to realize he was speaking of the others at the party. It is not their responsibility to dictate to an adult (over 18) what she may/not do.

    —-Not to be completely pitiless (although I pretty much am on this topic) … what about “personal responsibility” of the person drinking?? I am so unsympathetic to people who do this – well, anyone over the age of 18 at least. Anyone old enough to be able to enter into a legally binding contract, join the military, or get married – and be held fully accountable for those actions – is also old enough to buy alcohol and drink – and be held accountable for that action, too.

    —-It is the obsession Americans have with our puritanical tetotalling past which contributes to this problem. It is America’s willful disregard of mental health that underscores this. The government has gutted the system of public health in the name of financial expediency, of ‘cost cutting’. There is no coherent, effective system left to help organize a useful program against this. We are left with a patchwork of programs that co-exist, but do they mutually support each other? No. Do they have a unified approach to avoiding this problem? Not that I’ve noticed.

    —-As with any complex problem, there is no magic bullet, no single program, no single action to resolve our quandry. Parents can talk until they’re blue in the face, have their kids in SADD, and provide a “healthy environment”. This can still result in drinking excessively. Depression, destructive peer-pressure, & poor self-esteem are not the sort of things one can see at a glance. These social/mental-health challenges make the problem worse, in a much more direct and influential manner than simply having access to alcohol. Afterall, why are these people drinking so much? There is again, no single all-pervasive answer that fits everyone.

    —-The other point in the Strib article that horrified me was the idea that someone drunk themselves to death because god said so. (“There is a higher power that took Jenna because it was her time.”) I could never worship such a god. This philosophy indicates to me a refusal to acknowledge the person’s grief. Or a self-centered struggle to assume guilt which is not theirs.

    —-Finally, we need to stop treating alcohol like we treat sex. It is not some secret, mysterious thing that adults get to do, that must be great, since no one will tell kids anything about it. Teaching kids about sex should educate them about the consequences, not encourage them to do it; similarly, alcohol-ed should eliminate the mystery of drinking, and teach them the consequences of that choice.

  • Bob Collins

    Quick housekeeping item. I think the “preview” will not recognize paragraph breaks, but when it gets posted, the paragraphs will be in place. I’ll doublecheck that.

  • Bob Collins

    //I was so relieved to see the “Personal Responsibility” demand from the police. I was then so completely disappointed to realize he was speaking of the others at the party.

    I believe, actually, he was speaking about the individual involved. I think he was also speaking about the others.

    Elizabeth, you have a very comprehensive assessment here. The one thing I see missing is the role of the people who sell alcohol to the underage. I believe, unless I’m mistaken, it’s against the law. I saw in that article that in the case of Ms. Jax, the county attorney is still deciding whether to charge the bars that served her.

    What do you all think. Is there any sense in better enforcement of existing law? CAN it be reasonably enforced?

  • anonymous

    It seems pretty clear that a drinking age of 21 does little more than lead to “coming of age” binges and an increased mystique surrounding forbidden behavior.

    How long until we, as a society, realize than banning certain behaviors does more harm than good? We’d be much better off if we allowed responsible drinking at a younger age with the supervision of responsible adults. Age prohibitions do little more than lead to irresponsible drinking by minors and young adults.

  • mike simpkins

    A couple of things. Kids drink differently than a generation ago. As I recall, back in the day it was primarily beer and wine. Now it’s lots of shots, flavored liquor and mixed drinks. It’s almost like mainlining alcohol. Especially with inexperienced drinkers and women of smaller stature, the blood alcohol content can rise to dangerous levels very quickly. For Christmas I gave my son and my nephew, who are both college aged, a small battery operated breathalyzer along with a friendly lecture on how and when to use it, one of which is to check out a friend if they appear overly intoxicated. Granted, probably not a politically correct gift, but …

  • Grace Kelly

    I grew up with drinking. However any sign of over-drinking meant one was a social failure. Doing drinking games was the ultimate display of super stupidity. Kind of like pointing a loaded gun at one’s head or attempting to breath water.

    Commercial: A very cute girl is going through a party,with drunk cute guys disgusting her while she searches. She finds her boyfriend in drinking game. She says “we are so over”, throws a drink in his face. She flees into the garden to find a cute guy hanging out. He asks if she’s ok. She asks what he’s doing, he says “Anything but that” pointing at drinking party. They smile.

  • Stop the puritans

    I agree that a 21-year-old drinking age law is a bad idea. I drank before I turned 21 and I bet a lot of people reading this article did to. It’s a stupid law because it’s naive to think humans will never touch any alcohol until their 21st birthday and it’s a nightmare to enforce, esp. at colleges. I’d rather have my police going after murderers than college students drinking beer. Plus, alcohol isn’t inherently evil, so setting the drinking age at a puritanical 21 stops people from growing up with a responsible attitude towards alcohol. If society can’t stomach having a drinking age at 18 (which is the norm in Canada and Europe), then we should compromise and set the age at 19.

    Oh yeah, when I hear of some 18+ person dying from alcohol consumption, it’s sad, but the fault lies with person.

  • Bob Collins

    I don’t think the question is who’s fault it is. Clearly the person drinking is “at fault.” The question is what is the Upper Midwelst’s “thing” with alcohol that doesn’t exist in, say, Mississippi… the state we Minnesotans (and many others) like to make fun of. As in “at least we’re not Mississippi.”

    I was an 18 year old drinker back when the drinking age was lowered in the “he’s old enough to fight in Vietnam, but not have a beer” day. Drunk driving deaths went up fairly significantly, I believe.

    Is there an age at which it’s unreasonable to expect “responsible behavior?” (that’s not a rhetorical question).

    I believe in Wisconsin, a kid can drink in a restaurant as long as he/she is with parents. Wisconsin is a state very much built on alcohol as a fabric. We’re told it’s because of the German influence with breweries… and that in small towns, the brewery was one area where people gathered to socialize.

    But at the heart of the question is the reality that in the Upper Midwest, we have a different relationship with alcohol than in most other states. Why? Why are we so different?

  • Jed

    Don’t allow people to buy booze with credit cards.

    They don’t let you lottery tickets with them.

    Tell kids that if you sign a credit card bill while “Obviously intoxicated” they might want to contest the bill’s legality as a binding contract, seeing as how bar employees are already supposed to be capable to determine a customers state of mind.

  • MLS


    You’re wrong. “I was pretty drunk” is not a defense when a creditor takes you to court over a bar tab. Unless you are coerced or the card is stolen (the burden of proof is on you, not the issuing bank or credit card company), you’re stuck with the bill. And now with plastic overtaking paper for personal transactions, you’re a bit of a Luddite to suggest that it would be a good idea to forbid credit card (which would mean all bank cards since card readers don’t automatically distinguish debit and credit swipes) purchases of alcohol.

    The hysteria over drunk college kids is ridiculous. To those who say we didn’t get as drunk in the past as they do now, I don’t know where you were, but kids have been getting plastered, I think, forever. I thought it was normal, but apparently I didn’t spend enough time at church potlucks or whatever the hell we’re supposed to do here when it’s -10 outside (I thought it was drinking, but I guess I was mistaken).

    Minnesota is stuck in the past with no Sunday sales, 3.2 beer, and early tavern closings. We need to pull our collective self-righteous heads out of our Puritan asses and accept that excessive drinking existing is no reason to push backward Baptist values on everyone else. Live a little, guys, shut up, and mind your own God-damned business. We Minnesotans always seem to know what’s best for everyone else. Blah, blah, blah, community values, public health, for the children, blah, blah, blah. Having heard all this crap my entire life, I understand why some of these kids drink themselves to death.

  • LNV

    “And even when Jenna Foellmi, 20, of Brownsville put an exclamation point on the survey a day later by starting her drinking in the morning, continuing in the evening, and dropping dead by morning”

    Your comment is pretty insensitive considering the life of a good friend and family member was lost. When writing an article such as this, do you even consider that someone who knew Jenna might read it? We lost an amazing person, but to you she just “dropped dead.” People like you disgust me.