Toasting summer with glasses of whiskey. Photo via Pixabay
There’s a dark side to alcohol, from drunk driving deaths to violent drime . Photo via Pixabay

By Joe LaCava

Having wine with a haircut, drinking — not coffee — but wine and beer at Starbucks, knocking back a beer in a clothing boutique, downing tequila shots while shopping at Target, indulging in margaritas with a Taco Bell burrito, and consuming mixed drinks in our local family multiplex.

These are a few examples of what Big Alcohol is currently promoting.

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More choices and opportunities may appear to our consumer sensibilities as a good thing. However, making alcohol dramatically more available and obviously present in every conceivable place can bring tremendous harm to our youth and our communities.

When the consumption — and often overconsumption — of alcohol everywhere becomes normalized in our culture, youth and our communities can lose big.

Alcohol is the number one drug of choice for American youth. Ralph Hingson in “Social and Health Consequences of Underage Drinking” puts it more starkly: “Teen alcohol use kills 4,700 people each year — that’s more than all other illegal drugs combined.”

Furthermore, nearly 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes each year, making it the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States. And the U.S. Department of Justice found that criminals had been drinking in four of every 10 violent crimes committed in the United States.

Joe LaCava
Joe LaCava

Great progress has certainly been made over the years here in San Diego County and elsewhere around the country to reduce alcohol-related harms including reducing drunk driving. And there is a reduction in teen alcohol usage. These trends are encouraging; however, the effort to further reduce drunk driving seems to have hit a wall. In fact, more people are still arrested every year in our county for drunk driving than any other crime and more than all property crimes combined, according to SANDAG.

Alcohol-related problems hit us in the pocketbook.

Problems related to the excessive use of alcohol cost the United States $249 billion in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

This amounts to about $2.04 per drink. However, the alcohol industry is only paying eight cents a drink in taxes, so that means you and I are picking up much of Big Alcohol’s bar tab. That’s thousands of dollars per family every year.

How is it that we are subsidizing this industry without any real say?

Currently there is extremely limited oversight of alcohol retailers in California as was highlighted in the San Diego Planning Commission’s 2014 workshop. And limited oversight of alcohol advertising. Over twenty longitudinal studies show that youth exposed to alcohol advertising are influenced to drink because of them; nevertheless, Big Alcohol has been able to convince Congress that they are capable of self-monitoring alcohol advertising and marketing. As a result, there are almost no federal limits on alcohol advertising.

This is neither a moralistic argument nor advocating anything close to prohibition — alcohol is part of our society.

However, we need sensible safeguards to effectively prevent youth and our communities from becoming victims of alcohol-related harms — be it from underage drinking, drunk drivers, intoxicated assailants, or as residents and merchants exposed to the negative environmental impacts on their neighborhood.

Solutions that we need to implement include:

  • Establish mandatory responsible beverage sales training for alcohol servers such as Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez’s AB-2121 combined with regular law enforcement operations.
  • Make the state Alcoholic Beverage Control more responsive and follow current state limits that preclude new alcohol licenses in areas that already suffer from over-concentration of retailers and/or high crime.
  • Adopt “Deemed Approved Ordinances” to manage local problems related to new and existing alcohol establishments, joining over two dozen municipalities that have already passed such ordinances with effective provisions.
  • Establish effective oversight of national alcohol advertising and marketing practices — especially ensuring that youth are not subject to Big Alcohol marketing messages.
  • Prohibit alcohol marketing and advertising on public property as the City of Los Angeles has already done.

Let’s build on current laws by enacting sensible evidence-based safeguards to protect our children, our communities, and our pocketbooks from Big Alcohol.

Joe LaCava is a land use and planning consultant and a sector leader with the Alcohol Policy Panel of San Diego.