People who drank large amounts of alcohol reported a 20% increase in consumption during the pandemic shutdown, according to new research, and a national alcohol industry watchdog blames Big Alcohol.
About 60% of those who consider themselves binge drinkers reported an increase in their drinking when the coronavirus was at its peak compared to only 28% of people who are not binge-drinkers, according to the University of Texas Health Science Center’s American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse study.
“People use it for stress reduction,” said Michael J. Scippa, director of public affairs with the industry watchdog Alcohol Justice. “A lot of this binge drinking during COVID was due to people feeling stressed. Maybe they were out of work or sitting around and there’s only so much television you can watch. So, they decided on a buzz.”
That buzz is easier to get than ever thanks to HB 1094, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law in May, according to a press release.
HB 1094 allows restaurants to permanently safely sell alcohol with pickup and delivery food orders, which was billed as instrumental in helping the restaurant industry recover from the pandemic. Prior to the emergence of COVID, alcohol-to-go in Texas wasn’t permitted.
Scippa explains below the bigger picture of the deregulation that occurred during the COVID plague that allowed for the passage of alcohol-to-go.
Dallas Express: How did COVID-19 lockdowns enable deregulation in the alcohol industry?
“Throughout the first half of 2020, DUI charges were down dramatically because people just weren’t traveling and there were fewer places where you could consume alcohol and then get back in your car and drive home. But the flip side of it is that there was more alcohol related domestic harm being done, such as spousal abuse, because people were drinking at home instead of at a bar. What we had hoped was the state would focus on reducing harm by reducing consumption but that’s not what happened. What happened is that the industry was able to influence the legislatures and the governing agencies to relax rules and regulations as a way to save businesses. It was packaged as business relief and pandemic relief.”
Dallas Express: What is Big Alcohol?
“Alcohol companies and associations that have a lot of influence in state capitals. They spend a lot of money. There’s a website called FollowtheMoney.org that tracks contributions to legislators in every state and at all levels of government. Contributions come from producers like Anheuser-Busch InBev, associations like the Wine Institute or the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. These groups play these games in every state. It’s done with a lot of transparency. There’s no secret involved. It’s just that there’s a lack of awareness that policy makers are being influenced by these multinational corporations who spend a lot of money to make sure they get what they want and stop what they don’t like.”
Dallas Express: Why is it a problem?
“The problem is the bottom line, which is public health. If you look at deaths, injuries, lost productivity and you look at disease and illness associated with excessive alcohol consumption, you begin to get a picture of the financial loss* that states suffer.”
*The cost of excessive alcohol use in Texas, according to the CDC, is $784 per person and $18,820,600,000 in total.
“The over overarching issue is that our culture has glorified alcohol consumption. Every ad you see there’s usually young smiling faces having a great time with a drink in their hand no matter what their function might be. People use it for stress reduction. A lot of this binge drinking during COVID was from people who were stressed out, maybe out of work, and sitting around but there’s only so much television you can watch.”
Dallas Express: Why is Alcohol Justice opposed to alcohol-to-go?
“There are very few controls in place to ensure that the alcohol that is delivered safely and legally. If it’s a third-party delivery service like Door Dash or Grub Hub, are the drivers old enough to be handling alcohol? Have they been trained in responsible beverage service? Do they know it’s illegal to deliver alcohol to someone who’s already inebriated or who is under age? So, unless those safeguards are in place and those delivery services are being monitor or regulated, alcohol-to-go is a very bad idea.
“I have a 17-year-old niece who lives in Houston who drives for Door Dash. When she’s delivering something, she doesn’t know what’s in the bag. If it’s alcohol, she’s not old enough to dispense it and she doesn’t ask for an ID. These are very dangerous circumstances that will allow alcohol to fall into the hands of youth who are more than willing to use that pathway.”
Dallas Express: What does it indicate to you that the state of Texas approved alcohol-to-go?
“It indicates a misplaced sense of priorities on the part of our governing agencies to recognize that alcohol can be harmful even before COVID and by relaxing those rules and regulations during COVID, it is now going to be extraordinarily difficult to go back to where they were before. It’s like taxes. They usually don’t get lowered even if they’re inactive for an emergency purpose because it takes a tremendous amount of political will to lower taxes.”
Dallas Express: What other alcohol related rules and regulations were relaxed during the pandemic?
“In addition to cocktails-to-go, expanded footprint allowed restaurants and other establishments that sell alcohol to move out into the sidewalks, parking lots and alleys that are close to their businesses.
“Alcohol-to-go was a coordinated effort on the part of the national front groups for beer manufacturers and distilled spirits. The distilled spirits people were really strongly pushing for these relaxations during COVID to try and pick up some more market share because spirits have been in decline as wine, beer, and now hard seltzer have really taken off.”
Dallas Express: Why should the alcohol tax be increased?
“It’s one of the few databased strategies that reduce harm. All you have to do is increase the price and those who are most price sensitive, which is generally young people, or people who are impoverished, will drink less and there will be less harm. What taxes haven’t gone up in this period of time? Especially if those funds are being used for treatment and prevention programs at the state level or are being filtered down to the local level. But those funds are pretty much worthless if they’re stuck at a level based in the 1980s or 1990s.”