Don’t slack off on alcohol rules—these reforms need evidence

Housed in George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services, the Alcohol Policy Initiative is a group with a long track record of outstanding work on policy issues that matter to Americans…

Don’t slack off on alcohol rules—these reforms need evidence

Housed in George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services, the Alcohol Policy Initiative is a group with a long track record of outstanding work on policy issues that matter to Americans living with or at high risk for addiction.

This past May, we released an eye-opening analysis of the state of alcohol policy in Washington state to test the idea that loosening restrictions on alcohol could result in significant benefits to public health, both locally and nationally. Although positive results have been seen in several states—including California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, West Virginia, and Washington—evidence from the first five of these states was limited.

In fact, our study found that evidence linking loosened restrictions to improved public health outcomes is largely limited to relatively small states in which many alcohol-related deaths occur and where experience has been limited. When outcomes are large or when costs have been substantial, or when the state lacks evidence, enforcement at the local level has proven the most reliable predictor of positive outcomes.

The implications of our study are particularly important given the growing debate in the United States over whether to loosen alcohol policies to promote more responsible consumption, less costly policy, or both. As previously reported by the Washington Post, proposals in the state legislative session next year include reducing the price of alcoholic beverages; allowing stores to sell seven-day supply rather than two; and requiring ride-sharing services to display booze prominently in a taxi-like setting.

Research has shown that one of the best ways to discourage alcohol consumption is through higher taxes. This can also reduce harm from drinking because higher prices encourage people to purchase lower-strength drinks.

Alcohol taxes are also a key factor in measures we recommend, such as designating alcohol and tobacco as “sin taxes” that are taxed at higher rates than many goods. Doing so can reduce the extent to which consumers are compelled to use more harmful forms of consumption, thus minimizing the harms alcohol consumption causes.

While Washington state can certainly experiment, such polices should focus on the quality of information—not the quantity—that consumers receive.

Here in the District, we see the limitations of information-based reforms every day. While residents are willing to use tip-top bar spaces and convenient restaurant meals, that willingness goes only so far—they can easily bring their cues for attractive eating spaces and drinkable food into neighborhoods like Glover Park and Chevy Chase where there is little evidence of the healthy dining opportunities that make these establishments attractive.

The challenge of drinking and eating in the city without compelling destinations for both is compounded by the fact that 16-ouncers have sprung up in many of these locations. To make tips at a bar more sophisticated, and to promote healthier eating, they’ve converted restaurant tables into drinking busses.

Ultimately, we can no longer accept that in the United States, making it easier to drink water with your beer will make you less likely to drink beer.

On the contrary, improving access to medical support, for example, can make drinking water more attractive for many drinkers, because it makes them less likely to drive when they know their physical condition is at risk.

Ultimately, what matters is what can be proven rather than what should be invented.

We should always be willing to try new approaches to changing behavior, but it is crucial that these efforts begin with evidence that they will improve public health. We can’t think about people staying home from the bars—but the chances are not zero. The evidence is simply not there yet.

Michael Robinson is the director of GW’s Alcohol Policy Initiative.

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