Looser liquor laws boosted restaurants — and maybe problem drinking

Elaine S. Povich
Stateline.org (TNS)
Cocktails to go at the bar Please Don't Tell amid the COVID19 outbreak on March 19, 2020, in New York. (Victor J. Blue/Getty Images/TNS)

Most states that allowed curbside pickup or home delivery of alcohol to help restaurants, bars and liquor stores survive pandemic closures have extended the looser liquor laws. But in their desire to boost the hospitality industry, states might be fueling binge drinking and higher overall alcohol consumption, some research shows.

Of the 35 states (plus the District of Columbia) that loosened their cocktails to-go laws during the pandemic, 18 plus D.C. have made the rules permanent, and 14 have extended them, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Many factors have prompted some people to drink more during the pandemic. Some drank to deal with their anxiety, stress or grief. Those working at home had easier access to alcohol and spent less time commuting in their cars. Many normal social interactions were canceled or curtailed.

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But some researchers say looser laws also contributed to a rise in binge drinking and overall consumption, with all the attendant health harms.

A study published earlier this year by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that people who had alcohol delivered reported consuming more drinks and drinking on more days than people who obtained it through other methods.

The survey conducted in May 2020, two months after the pandemic began, found that people who had alcohol delivered were nearly twice as likely to engage in binge drinking compared with those who obtained it other ways.

“With the increase in availability, we see excessive use,” said Alicia Sparks, chair of the nonprofit U.S. Alcohol Policy Alliance, which lobbied against looser state laws. “There’s really strong science around increased availability leading to increased consumption and increased harm.”

A study conducted by RTI International, a North Carolina-based research institute, found an overall increase in alcohol consumption that began with the onset of the pandemic and continued throughout 2020. In terms of drinks per month, alcohol consumption was 39% higher in November 2020 than it was in February 2020, the month before the pandemic began, according to the study. Binge drinking increased by 30% during the same period.

There were especially large increases in consumption during that time frame among Black and Hispanic women (173% and 148%, respectively) and Black men (173%).

Carolina Barbosa, a health economist at RTI, said to-go alcohol sales and expanded delivery services probably played a role in the increases. Barbosa said states are loosening the rules without regard to the data on increased alcohol consumption, which can lead to numerous public health consequences such as alcoholism and liver disease.

“Yes, the problem is in many states (looser laws) are becoming permanent,” Barbosa said in a phone interview. “For sure, they should be rethought.”

But others question the connection between looser laws and increased consumption — or even that people drank more during the pandemic.

The Distilled Spirits Council, a trade association, pointed to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, issued by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In the most recent report, which covers 2020, only 15.4% of people 12 or older said they drank “a little more or much more” than they did before the pandemic. More than 59% said they drank “about the same,” and more than a quarter said they drank less.

The group also cited an August 2021 Gallup poll, in which 60% of U.S. adults reported drinking alcoholic beverages, down from 65% in 2019, when Gallup last asked the question. The polling firm skipped 2020, citing the possible impact of the early-pandemic lockdowns on Americans’ drinking habits.

Chris Swonger, president and CEO of the Distilled Spirits Council, also said that by encouraging consumption of alcohol at home, to-go alcohol sales reduced opportunities for drunken driving. Alcohol enforcement agencies say looser to-go and delivery rules have made it harder to enforce underage drinking laws. But Swonger emphasized that, “any time you are dealing with the sale and distribution of beverage alcohol, it’s done with strong consideration and training, age verification and license verification.”

And some say the changes states made during the pandemic just put alcohol on an equal footing with other products.

“COVID brought about a long-delayed reckoning about how alcohol is regulated and controlled in our country,” said C. Jarrett Dieterle, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a free market think tank in Washington, D.C.

“Things that were commonplace in other industries, like two-day delivery for every other product under the sun,” didn’t apply to alcohol, Dieterle said. “People realized the dissonance.”

Oregon, which touts its wineries and breweries in state advertising, is one of the states where the debate between public health advocates and the hospitality industry ended with relaxed laws being made permanent: Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signed a measure last year that allows licensed establishments to sell “mixed drinks and single servings of wine in sealed containers for off-premises consumption."

Mike Marshall, executive director of Oregon Recovers, a nonprofit that works to increase access to treatment and recovery programs to fight addiction, said the decision to ease access to alcohol is likely to exacerbate an already problematic situation in the state. According to the Oregon State Medical Examiner, alcohol-related deaths surged 73% from 2019 to 2020.

“Increased access leads to increased consumption, especially with binge drinkers and underage drinkers,” Marshall said in an interview. “In the face of increased harm and damage caused by alcohol, the Oregon legislature and governor thought the best thing to do was to increase (paths) for alcohol consumption.”

However, Oregon officials recently launched a “Rethink the Drink” campaign to persuade state residents to take stock of how much alcohol they are consuming. Using public service announcements on various media platforms, the state is trying to educate Oregonians on how much alcohol is contained in different kinds of drinks and how much it might take someone to become impaired.

Erica Heartquist, spokeswoman for the public health division of the Oregon Health Authority, said the program was not especially timed to coincide with the increased drinking during the pandemic, but the timing is fortuitous.

“Alcohol is the third-leading cause of death in Oregon,” she said in an interview. “We love our beer and our wine in the Pacific Northwest, so we want to put the brakes on excessive drinking.”