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Despite Flashy Image, Does Las Vegas Have A Drinking Problem?

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During the Rat Pack era, a drink in hand was as much part of Dean and Frank’s uniform as was the tuxedo. 

Nicolas Cage won an Oscar for portraying an alcoholic who drank himself to death in “Leaving Las Vegas.” 

But is Las Vegas’ reputation as a ‘drinking town’ deserved? Or does that perception play to a myth enriched by Hollywood and fancy marketing? 

It can be difficult to determine how big of a problem the city has, when national focus zeros in on a five-mile-long stretch of road that sells itself as a place to have a good time. It includes bars that serve yardlong margaritas, nightclubs with bottle service, and pools that offer all day drinking and no open container laws.

Lissa Townsend Rogers has written about Las Vegas bars and restaurants for local and national restaurants, and points out that Las Vegas is one of only two places in the country that people come with the specific intent to drink - a lot.

"I think we and New Orleans are the only cities where people literally say 'I will go there and drink!' as an event, not as a sideline," she said, "We peddle bottle service, but I don't know that we're that much worse than other cities."

She said it's difficult to separate Las Vegas' tourism culture with what locals do. 

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Jamie Ross is the executive director of PACT Coalition - a substance abuse prevention nonprofit associated with the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health, agrees and said it's more about perception.  

"The social norm is that everybody is doing it when we know that that's not actually true," she said, "We're about where everyone else is but it feels like everyone is drinking."

That sentiment is etched in truth when considering the stats. Thus far this year, The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department has made 3,600 DUI arrests - down from last year's 3,900. 

Officer Karl Tomaso said Metro makes about 330 DUI arrests per month, and it's hard to differentiate that number into the number of tourists vs. the number of locals.  

He believes one of the biggest problems is people not making a plan when they go out for a drink - even the influx of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft haven't dented the DUI numbers in recent years. 

"People don't make that decision on how they're going to get home after a night of drinking until they're there," he said, "I think if you're going to meet with friends... but you haven't made the plan to how are going to get home that is a little bit of where our problem lies."

Tomaso said he also believes the lax laws for first-time offenders don't do enough to deter people from drinking and driving - it's basically a slap on the wrist. 

When it comes to addressing the social norm of the city, Townsend Rogers believes part of that is the 24-hour nature. Not only are many - if not all - bars in Las Vegas open 24-hours a day, thousands of shift workers end their shift when the traditional 9-5-ers are just getting started. Having a drink at 6 a.m. might seem strange in other cities, but in Las Vegas - it's just normal. 

David Marlon runs a drug and alcohol addiction recovery center in Las Vegas. He said his facility doesn't see a higher percentage of alcoholics, but the people who do come to his facility have a higher acuity. 

"People who drink a fifth in other places," he said, "Here they'll drink a quart or they'll drink more than that. I frequently have people who are taking pills who are taking 50, 60, 70 pills a day while my partners in other treatment centers don't see as much of an acuity."

Another factor unique to Las Vegas, Marlon pointed out, was how two addictions can go hand in hand. For instance, substance abuse and gambling. He said people often come in for gambling problems but they find their drinking habits are also a problem.

And while Las Vegas may seem like the drunkest city in the country to outsiders, a recent report by 24/7 Wall Street named Reno as the drunkest, based on numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on binge drinking, heavy drinking and alcohol-related deaths.

In 2015, approximately 18 in every 100,000 Reno residents died from causes related to alcohol.

 

Resources:

Alcoholics Anonymous

Solutions Recovery

CDC Alcohol and Public Health

Guests

Karl Tomaso, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department; David Marlon, CEO, Solutions Recovery; Jamie Ross, executive director, PACT Coalition; Lissa Townsend Rogers, freelance writer, Vegas Seven, Esquire Magazine, New York Magazine 

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