The alcohol industry in the United States (U.S.) has been relentless in their lobbying to weaken state alcohol policy protections. As a result alcohol harm is now sky rocketing in the states that buckled under Big Alcohol lobbying pressure.
As Movendi International has previously reported, Big Alcohol unleashed a lobbying frenzy to weaken state alcohol laws when the pandemic broke out, including allowing alcohol home delivery and takeaway alcohol. This increased the alcohol availability in affected states and exposed communities to even greater alcohol harms.
Big Alcohol’s push to weaken existing alcohol policy systems across federal states has often succeeded and states have extended or even made permanent these weaker alcohol policies.
- At the beginning of the pandemic, 31 states included cocktails-to-go as a temporary measure.
- In 15 states the measure was extended by two to five years.
- Another 16 states made cocktails-to-go a permanent law.
- At least nine states passed laws allowing direct home delivery of alcohol.
And the alcohol lobby has not stopped there. Efforts to deregulate alcohol policies are continuing when state legislatures reconvene in a few weeks across the country, with at least a half dozen bills underway. All of these bills are modeled off laws that were enacted in 2020 and in early 2021 to favor the interests of the alcohol industry.
Rapid alcohol deregulation increases alcohol harms across the U.S.
Big Alcohol’s lobbying onslaught has caused a sudden shift in state alcohol laws which would have otherwise taken at least a decade to demolish. But the rapid change has also caused a rapid rise in alcohol use and resulting harm across the country.
A recent study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, analyzed alcohol sales in 14 states in the U.S. for which the federal database had complete sales data: Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Dakota, Oregon, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.
The study found that between March to June 2020 compared to the same months in 2019 and 2018:
- Sales of hard liquor, or spirits, rose nearly 11% on average in all states in the study.
- Four states saw substantial increases: In Texas, Kentucky, Virginia and Missouri, sales of liquor increased by 20% to 40% during that time period.
- Sales of wine in the states of the study rose nearly 9%. Arkansas, Kentucky and Virginia had a “sustained increase” through June 2020, while Texas showed an increase in wine sales in April, May and June.
- Overall, beer sales declined in all states in the study except Kansas, Arkansas and Texas.
- Visits to bars and pubs also declined during this time period.
Law enforcement officials have voiced concern over the rapid weakening of state alcohol laws.
Our concern with this type of activity would be underage [alcohol use] and impaired driving,” said Mark Anderson, president of the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association, where a cocktails-to-go law passed this year with a 2023 expiration date, as per The Washington Post.
And often with domestic abuse, it can add fuel to an already difficult situation.”
Mark Anderson, president, Vermont Sheriffs’ Association
Meanwhile, alcohol prevention and recovery groups are emphasizing that making alcohol more widely and easily available is especially dangerous for children and youth and people in recovery from alcohol use disorder.
It’s absolutely a threat for people who are suffering from addiction,” said Mike Marshall, co-founder and director of Oregon Recovers, an advocacy group that opposed a state bill that passed this year, making cocktails-to-go permanent, as per The Washington Post.
It’s a crass disregard for the public health consequences.”
Mike Marshall, co-founder and director, Oregon Recovers
Rising alcohol availability, increasing consumption and skyrocketing alcohol harms
As Movendi International reported in April this year, the deregulation agenda of Big Alcohol has caused a rise in multiple alcohol harms in the country.
Versta Research conducted the 2020 Behavioral Health Pandemic Impact study on behalf of The Standard, surveying 1,425 full-time employees in the U.S.
- 49% of American workers are suffering from alcohol or other substance use disorders.
- A growing number of people below the age of 40 is presenting at hospitals with alcoholic liver disease.
- The American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD) reports a 30% to 50% increase in the number of hospitalizations and deaths caused by alcohol-related liver disease over the past year.
A Rand Corporation study showed that in the first year of the pandemic – while men’s self-reported alcohol use was relatively stable – one out of 15 women who were not bingeing on alcohol started this exceptionally harmful behavior in 2020.
State medical examiners data are showing rising alcohol harms as well.
- The Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office, reports 337 deaths attributed to alcohol consumption in 2020, up from 197 in 2019, representing a 71% increase.
- In Vermont, deaths in which alcohol intoxication was determined to be the sole or contributing cause nearly doubled from the two prior years. There were 15 such deaths in 2018, 16 in 2019 and 28 this year, according to the Vermont Department of Health.
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A groundbreaking report explores the lethal interaction that alcohol industry products and practices have with the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Alcohol increases the health and societal problems arising from the pandemic. For example, alcohol weakens the immune system and makes people more susceptible to infections. And alcohol-centric social contexts have been COVID-19 super spreader events. The recent incident with spring breakers in Miami is one example.
- Alcohol increases the burden on healthcare and emergency services which are already stretched due to the COVID-19.
- The alcohol industry exploits the pandemic to change alcohol laws to their benefit. As cited above 15 states in the U.S. have extended cocktails-to-go measures for three to five years, another 16 states have made these measures permanent and at least nine states passed laws allowing direct home delivery of alcohol.
Big Alcohol lobby uses the “small business” argument to pressure state law makers
State law makers are being pressured by the Big Alcohol. Lobbyists push the narrative that weakening alcohol laws helps small businesses. The truth is, however, that those who are profiting the most are major multinational alcohol companies and not small business.
We are up against an unprecedented rollback of alcohol regulations that have been in place for decades that is intended to protect health and safety,” said Alicia Sparks, vice chair of the U.S. Alcohol Policy Alliance, a nonprofit organization whose members fought the bills, as per The Washington Post.
“We are definitely being out-lobbied and outspent by the alcohol industry. And despite the narrative around this, the money is ending up in the hands of these multinational corporations, not small businesses.”
Alicia Sparks, vice chair, U.S. Alcohol Policy Alliance
For example, according to the industry group National Restaurant Association’s own account the cocktails-to-go measures have provided only little aid to restaurants. For instance, the owner of Park Squeeze restaurant in Vergennes, Vermont says the profit from cocktails-to-go was small and that it was not a “make or break” for the restaurant.
There has been no national analysis on how much profit was actually gained by small businesses through weakening alcohol laws to allow direct home delivery.
There was also industry infighting regarding the weakening of laws. The beer industry fought measures that would allow distilleries to deliver directly to home fearing it might cut into their share of profits. Liquor stores sometimes fought cocktails-to-go measures because of the same concerns.
Notably, not all law makers gave in to the lobbying pressure of the alcohol industry. For example, in Alabama, State Representative Reed Ingram (R) voted against a bill that passed, which allows home delivery of alcohol. He cited his own family history suffering from harm caused by alcohol products, while opposing the bill.
[The push to pass the bills during the pandemic] was low-hanging fruit for the people who were selling the alcohol. They captured that crack in the concrete, leaning on the hardship of COVID-19 to make more money,” said Alabama State Representative Reed Ingram (R), as per The Washington Post.
Alabama, State Representative Reed Ingram (R)
For further reading
USA and COVID-19: Why Is Alcohol Use Rising?
Washington Post: “States rushed to loosen alcohol laws in the pandemic. Heavy drinking went up, some studies say.“
CNN: “We really did buy more alcohol during the early pandemic, study finds”