Too many birthday gifts killed her son.
Too many birthday gifts killed her son.
Daniel Kramer

Breaking the Birthday Binge

Susan Wagener wanted to be the first to congratulate her oldest son, Michael, when he turned 21 back in 1999. She called him about 7 a.m. on his birthday.

The roommate who answered told her that Michael, a senior majoring in environmental design at Texas A&M, hadn't returned home the previous night. He was lying, trying to cover for his buddy. Actually, they'd been out partying the night before, and the roommate knew Michael was in no shape to talk to Mom.

In fact, Michael was dead. Alcohol poisoning had killed him sometime in the night. Between midnight and 1:30 a.m., Michael, already drunk after several beers, began slamming down drinks near the campus, at a hole-in-the-wall bar called the Coupe De Ville. He had eight concoctions with names like Flaming Frog's Ass, Bad Motherfucker, Liquid Cocaine and DWI.

The first one was free, courtesy of the bar. The rest were birthday gifts from friends. Many of the drinks contained triple shots of 151-proof rum. His mother says the potency of the drinks is part of the sales pitch.

Wagener, who lives in Porter, north of Houston, has crusaded against what students refer to as the Hour of Power, the night they turn 21. She recently spoke to students at Sam Houston State University, where two students have died from binge drinking in the last two years.

"They're drinking their age in shots," says Wagener. "They call them shots, but they're four ounces. You're serving four drinks at once. What do you consider a drink by TABC code?"

There is no legal definition, but state Representative Rob Eissler has drafted a bill that would limit a serving size to an ounce of 100-proof liquor.

Although the Woodlands Republican concedes his proposal has no chance of passing, he does hope to get a keg-registration law passed, requiring stickers or serial numbers on kegs. The intent is to be able to more easily identify the purchaser should the keg be used by underage drinkers.

Eissler is more confident about passage of the "Cinderella Law." That would require young adults to wait until the day after their 21st birthday to legally drink.

"It's gotten good reception, even from kids who say, 'What are you doing in my business?' " says Eissler.

But critics of the TABC point to what they call "feel-good" legislation like the keg-registration and Cinderella laws -- adding more language and nuance to an already tortured code -- as one of the problems with the agency.

Owners of bars and liquor stores mostly agree that neither keg registration nor the Cinderella Law will have any effect on underage or binge drinking.

"They'll just find another way to do it," says John Rydman, owner of the Spec's chain of liquor stores. "I have friends in states where they have keg registration, and they tell me it doesn't work."


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