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Bar IQ

Can you Spot the Onset of Intoxication?

March 1, 2011 By: Robert Plotkin


It doesn’t take an advanced degree to spot a drunk at 10 paces. The visible indicators are perfectly obvious — loss of coordination, unable to articulate and an inability to think coherently. However, servers of alcohol are charged with a significantly more challenging task. They’re legally responsible for spotting the initial telltale signs of intoxication. In other words when someone is starting to “feel the alcohol.”

If servers wait until a guest is obviously impaired before refusing further service, it’ll be too late. The guest’s blood alcohol concentration won’t reach its highest level for another 15-30 minutes after he or she stops drinking. In addition, the impairing effects of alcohol will continue to increase roughly 25% for another hour after being refused further service. No, the time to refuse service is well before someone begins exhibiting the obvious signs of being intoxicated.

Knowledge and training are critical to the process. Servers need to know about the various factors affecting intoxication. For example, the bigger and/or trimmer a person is, the less affected he or she is by each ounce of alcohol consumed. Women are more adversely affected by alcohol than men. What a person is drinking also plays a role. Distilled spirits cause blood alcohol levels to rise faster and higher than will beer or wine.

Again, early detection is key. Alcohol initially affects behavior and usually lessens inhibitions. People generally become extremely relaxed, overly friendly or speak increasingly louder. They also may become visibly emotional or demonstrate sudden, inexplicable mood swings.

As a person’s blood alcohol level increases, reasonable behavior and rational thinking steadily diminishes. They begin drinking faster, ordering doubles or buying the “house a round.” Many get careless with their money, or complain loudly about drink strength, preparation or price. Activities that normally require no conscious thought gradually become more difficult. People have difficulty lighting cigarettes, light the wrong end or have two cigarettes burning at once. Speech patterns become altered, slurred, exaggerated or deliberate. Pupils dilate and eyes get glassy and unfocused.

If a server has reservations about a guest’s sobriety, the person shouldn’t be served more alcohol. The adage “better safe than sorry” applies here. When in doubt, don’t serve.

Tact and diplomacy are the two strongest attributes servers can possess. When refusing further service, it is important to avoid using inflammatory language or assume a judgmental, disapproving attitude. Telling someone under the influence that he or she is drunk or intoxicated is often inflammatory and may provoke an incident.

Servers need to make a concerted effort to avoid embarrassing a patron by keeping his or her voice quiet and remaining sensitive to the customer’s feelings and predicament. That said, the server must remain firm about refusing the person more alcohol. The approach should be authoritative without being overbearing or condescending.

Regardless of what is said when “cutting off” a customer, the simpler the approach the more comfortable servers will be when you’re obliged to refuse a patron further service.


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