Can social problems be zoned away? Quite a few governments seem to think so these days. Numerous states and localities have passed laws this year to block sex offenders from living within several hundred yards of schools and other places where children may gather. And cities in Washington State are trying to curb problems with alcohol by banning certain drinks from designated areas.

In Washington, local governments can apply to the state liquor control board for permission to create "alcohol-impact areas," in which merchants are blocked from selling about three dozen specific brands of malt liquor and fortified wine. Seattle, having found that limits on the hours of sale haven't worked too well, is seeking to ban high-potency beer and wine within two large areas around the city's downtown district and the main campus of the University of Washington.

The two proposed areas are large--the one downtown covers 6 square miles--and this is an attempt to respond to one of the potential weaknesses of alcohol-impact zoning. If the designated areas are too small, drinkers can simply walk across the boundary. That's what happened when Seattle imposed an earlier ban on strong drinks in a notoriously seedy area around Pioneer Square. Pushing the problem a few blocks away tends to anger the neighborhoods that inherit the drinkers and does nothing to curb crime or limit the number of alcohol-related calls to local hospital emergency rooms.

But there is some evidence that when the impact areas are big enough, they can achieve the desired result. A decade ago, the Hilltop neighborhood in Tacoma was a classic case of urban blight, plagued by gangs and prostitution, and marked by boarded-up buildings and plenty of public inebriation. But recent police statistics show a dramatic reduction of crime in the Hilltop area, and while there likely are several factors responsible, a study conducted by Washington State University has concluded that the alcohol-impact district has brought down the number of alcohol-related crimes to a significant degree.

People can still drink in Hilltop, but they have a harder time getting seriously drunk because only milder beers and wines are available. That makes a difference, says Mary DeGruy, program director of the Tacoma Detoxification Center. She cites one Hilltop resident who used to be picked up so often by police and EMS units, at such great expense to the city, that he was known as the "Million Dollar Man." Deprived of easy access to fortified wine, he still gets drunk, but now, DeGruy says, he "walks in on his own, doesn't involve the police and sleeps it off."

DeGruy says the Million Dollar Man and her other regulars generally lack the bus fare to get to distant parts of town where they could juice up. Getting rid of the hard stuff has not cured area alcoholism, but it has made problem drinking easier to control. Opportunities to sin can't be legislated away, but perhaps they can be made less convenient.