UTEP Public Health Graduates Impact Local Alcohol Policy

A survey by two public health graduate students at The University of Texas at El Paso found that alcohol and baseball don’t mix at the El Paso County Sportspark.

Evelyn Garcia and Daniela Marquez teamed up with community partners and UTEP health promotion students to survey El Paso County residents about their support for alcohol restrictions at the Sportspark.

County Commissioners had considered limiting the sale of alcohol after Precinct 1 County Commissioner Carlos Leon proposed banning all alcohol sales at the Sportspark in June 2017.

Located in far east El Paso, the park features 10 fields, batting cages and a clubhouse and caters to several tee ball and youth baseball leagues. But beer and wine sold in the park’s restaurant and concession stand raised red flags about whether it was appropriate for adults to consume alcohol while watching children play ball.

“The majority of the games are for young people, and I think we’re setting a poor example by allowing alcohol to be served there,” Leon said during the June 5 Commissioner’s Court meeting.

Before taking action, commissioners asked for a survey to gauge the public’s support to restrict alcohol sales at the park. That’s when Garcia and Marquez stepped up to the plate and offered to help with the survey.

Although most spectators drank responsibly, more than 60 percent of the survey’s 902 respondents felt that selling alcohol at the Sportspark was a bad call.

“There’s a place and time to drink, and the Sportspark was not the place to do it,” said Marquez, who along with Garcia, graduated with a master’s degree in public health from UTEP in December 2017.

“There’s a different vibe when there’s alcohol involved because you’re not just supporting your kids, you’re drinking, too,” Garcia added. “Parents get very competitive because their kids are not winning, and just imagine adding alcohol to that mix.”

The UTEP alumnae conducted the survey on behalf of the Alcohol Impact Network, a community collaborative headed by the YMCA of El Paso and the Paso del Norte Health Foundation’s Shift Positive initiative. The goals of the initiative are to reduce underage drinking and binge drinking in the Paso del Norte region.

The results were presented to the County Commissioners in late 2017 and they voted 4-1 to ban the sale of alcohol at the Sportspark. The ban also prohibits people from bringing alcohol to the park or consuming alcohol in the parking lot.

Marquez, a project coordinator with Shift Positive, said the Sportspark’s alcohol ban showed how a change in policy can improve health in the community.

“When you do individual programs and you’re able to help one person, you think, ‘Great! I was able to help one life,’” she said. “But when you change policy and you know that many people in the county are going to be impacted, it is just such a rewarding experience.”

Marquez began her public health career with Shift Positive as an intern. She was hired after earning a bachelor’s degree in health promotion from UTEP in 2014. Garcia also interned with the initiative before being employed as their outreach specialist in 2016.

The internships enabled both UTEP graduates to supplement the knowledge they acquired in class with real-world experiences. They received training on alcohol-related policy from national experts and developed additional skills and competencies to address underage and binge drinking in the community.

“Interning at Shift Positive is what led us to become involved in advocacy and policy change,” said Garcia, who moved to Washington, D.C., in January 2018. “We like to tell students that internships are so important. It’s a great way to get your career started and see what you’re passionate about.”

A dozen UTEP health promotion students and the Alcohol Impact Network’s community partners pitched in to conduct the Sportspark’s 15-question survey that Garcia and Marquez developed.

A total of 902 people were interviewed: 300 over the phone and 602 face-to-face or online. Sixty-two percent of respondents answered “no” when they were asked if they thought it was a good idea for alcohol to be served at the Sportspark.

When asked if they had ever witnessed negative or inappropriate behavior due to alcohol consumption at the Sportspark, 73 percent answered no. But when asked about specific behaviors, 37 percent said they had seen adults showing signs of intoxication and 32 percent said they had seen alcohol-related yelling or verbal arguments. Thirty-one percent said they had seen adults driving with youth after consuming alcohol.

“It was really important to have those detailed scenarios because it opened (respondents’) eyes to that behavior that was happening at the Sportspark,” Garcia said.

Before the survey’s results were presented to the court, Garcia and Marquez met with each of the four commissioners and the county judge to answer questions about the survey and cover all their bases.

Even though they struck out with one commissioner, the motion passed to ban alcohol at the Sportspark.

This was the second time that Garcia and Marquez succeeded in changing policy related to alcohol.

They worked with Shift Positive to pass a social host ordinance in El Paso that made it illegal to provide an environment where underage drinking takes place. City Council approved the ordinance in December 2016.

“I don’t drink, but I’m not against it,” Marquez said. “We are not about prohibition, but we know that communities can control the alcohol environment by creating safer environments that contribute to reductions in alcohol-related harm.”

Garcia and Marquez presented their study at the fall 2017 UTEP Graduate Student Research Expo. They also hosted an advocacy training for students in November.

“We want to show students that it’s not impossible to make a difference in the community, and if you get involved with health policy, you can have a large impact in El Paso,” Garcia said.

Author:  Laura L. Acosta – UTEP Communications