Are alcohol sales actually essential? According to the federal government, just over half of Americans age 18 and above (55.3%) drank alcohol in the past 30 days; just over a quarter binged – more than four drinks on an occasion for women, or five for men – and 1 in 17 (5.8%) had an alcohol use disorder, ranging from mild to severe.
For those in this latter group who are actually dependent on it, alcohol may indeed be essential.
But evidence thus far in the epidemic is that people in general are buying more alcohol, and in larger quantities. As someone who has spent 30 years studying the link between alcohol policy and public health, I know that this is likely to result in a spike in alcohol use disorders for years to come.
This increase in drinking will have both a short- and a long-term impact on health and safety. In the short term, alcohol abuse suppresses multiple aspects of the body’s immune system response, with particular effects on the lungs’ ability to fight off infections like COVID-19.
The rise in off-premise sales of alcohol and home consumption will also likely affect interpersonal violence. Adding alcohol to a possibly violent situation is like pouring gasoline on a lit fire.
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, CityHealth, a project of the de Beaumont Foundation and Kaiser Permanente rated the nation’s 40 largest cities on whether they have claimed jurisdiction over alcohol sales within their borders.
Eight can regulate alcohol outlets, including limiting hours and days of sale, establishing maximum purchase amounts, and banning price discounting, which is known to increase alcohol consumption. If necessary, they can also shut down premises.
Another eight have elements of local control over alcohol sales, but lack jurisdiction over some portion of new or existing outlets.
The remaining 24 cities lack control, because they are preempted from it by state laws that prohibit local action, or because they have not expressly taken such authority in their city codes. Yet even in these cities, civic and public health leaders could use emergency powers to limit or shut down alcohol sales in their jurisdictions.
A large body of research has found that the number of stores selling alcohol in an area, and how they serve and sell it matters for public health. The Task Force on Community Preventive Services concluded that limiting both the density of outlets and the hours and days they may sell are effective measures for reducing alcohol problems.