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States rushed to loosen alcohol laws in the pandemic. Heavy drinking went up, some studies say.

States rushed to loosen alcohol laws in the pandemic. Heavy drinking went up, some studies say.

The Washington Post
By Kimberly Kindy
December 20, 2021

CORRECTION – A previous version of this article misstated the year that Vermont’s cocktails-to-go law passed. It passed this year, not in 2020. The article has been corrected.

As heavy drinking increased in some households during the pandemic, dozens of state legislatures passed bills relaxing state alcohol laws, creating changes so vast that the movement is being compared to the waning days of Prohibition.

The new rules include cocktails-to-go laws, which allow consumers to pick up mixed cocktails, beer or wine at their local pub or restaurant, and direct-to-consumer laws that allow grocery stores or liquor stores — and sometimes distillers, brewers or winemakers — to deliver alcoholic beverages directly to people’s homes.

Ultimately, 31 states included cocktails-to-go as a temporary relief measure at the beginning of the pandemic. In 15 states, the effort was extended by two to five years. Another 16 states made cocktails-to-go a permanent law, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade association.

At least nine states also passed laws or changed regulations that made it easier for customers to have alcohol delivered directly to their homes, according to an analysis done by R Street Institute, a Washington think tank that advocates for free markets.

These efforts are expected to continue when state legislatures reconvene in a few weeks across the country, with at least a half dozen bill proposals underway — all modeled off laws that were enacted in 2020 and again this year.

“It would have taken 10 years for this to happen in a non-pandemic era,” said Mike Whatley, vice president of state affairs and grass-roots advocacy at the National Restaurant Association. “What’s happened in the last 20 or so months is likely the most significant or major change to alcohol laws since the end of Prohibition.”

But critics say expansion has come at the same time alcohol sales soared and drinking spiked. Studies have found higher rates of binge drinking and alcoholism, and some state coroners have reported a sharp increase in alcohol-related deaths during the pandemic.

Alcohol prevention and recovery groups said they have difficulty countering the powerful alcohol lobby and the narrative — which has appealed to many lawmakers — that the laws help struggling small-business owners.

“We are up against an unprecedented rollback of alcohol regulations that has 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. “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.”

The laws were passed in response to requests that poured in from the alcohol industry, restaurant owners, grocery retailers and liquor stores after governors issued closure orders for most businesses and stay-at-home orders for many Americans.

Restaurateurs wanted to sell alcoholic beverages with curbside pickup meals. Grocery stores, liquor stores, distillers and breweries wanted to offer home delivery.

Their singular message was that it was a necessary lifeline for businesses struggling to survive the pandemic.

“It was really rooted in providing the small-business owner an opportunity to keep the lights on,” said David Wojnar, senior vice president and head of lobbying for the Distilled Spirits Council, which mobilized more than 40 lobbyists to press the issue around the country.

It’s unclear how much money the council or other alcohol groups spent nationally on statehouse lobbying efforts since reporting requirements vary state-to-state.

The cocktails-to-go measures appear to have provided modest help to restaurants. Before the pandemic, full-service restaurants said between 20 to 25 percent of sales came from purchases of alcoholic beverages, according to the National Restaurant Association. Those alcohol proceeds are about 10 percent of takeout meals for restaurants operating under the new ordinances and laws, the association said.

No national analysis appears to have been done to evaluate profits gained through direct-to-consumer delivery laws, but small-batch distillers see it as a crucial part of their business model and a leveling of the playing field since many craft beer producers and most wineries have shipped their products directly to consumers for years.

“The spirits industry is just looking for parity with the beer and wine industry,” said Ryan Christiansen, president and head distiller at Caledonia Spirits in Vermont. “What else in your life can you not order and have delivered to your doorstep? They are in a container perfectly suitable to shipping across country. And business is still being impacted by the pandemic.”

A shift in consumer habits — with more Americans growing increasingly accustomed to having all manner of products delivered to their front doorstep — has also fueled the changes.

“It’s culture changing. The pandemic forced people to shop differently. They learned a new skill. They want the convenience,” said Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations with the Food Marketing Institute, a trade association for the industry. “They feel most comfortable ordering groceries online for things that are less perishable, and alcohol fits into that.”

Although most of the bills passed with bipartisan support among legislators, there was opposition. In Alabama, State Rep. Reed Ingram (R) voted against a bill that passed, which allows home delivery of alcohol, driven in part by his own personal history.

“My mother was an alcoholic and we were homeless for a while because of it. Easier access to alcohol would have made the problem worse,” Reed said, adding that 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 to make more money.”

Some opposition came from the industry itself. The beer industry fought measures that would allow distilleries to deliver directly to consumers for fear it might cut into their sales. Liquor stores sometimes fought cocktails-to-go measures because of the same concerns.

Law enforcement officials also told legislators that they worry about the negative social impact the measures could have on communities.

“Our concern with this type of activity would be underage drinking 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. “And often with domestic abuse, it can add fuel to an already difficult situation.”

Alcohol prevention and recovery groups also opposed the bills, saying they are concerned about the possible dangers created by making access to alcohol easier, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, when people were isolated and those in recovery were unable to attend in-person support groups.

“It’s absolutely a threat for people who are suffering from the disease of 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. “It’s a crass disregard for the public health consequences.”

Dickie Austin, who owns the Park Squeeze restaurant in Vergennes, Vt., and is on the city council, said he does not see an increased threat to public safety since it is already easy for his customers to swing by a local liquor store after they pick up their takeout food. His employees seal the tops and do not provide straws, hoping to avoid a Bourbon Street scene in the neighborhood.

He said revenue from cocktails-to-go are small — about 10 percent of takeout proceeds — but there have been other benefits.

“It was helpful, but it was not make or break for us,” Austin said. “The best part of it was the appreciation of our regulars. It felt as much as a community service than anything else. We were able to provide a little dose of normal to them.”

The plan for Vermont’s cocktails-to-go law came together when two state legislators and their relatives and friends in the restaurant industry gathered in mid-March 2020 at the back of Austin’s Park Squeeze restaurant.

The group had received word that Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) might announce the closure of restaurants in a conference call, so they huddled by the cellphone of Rep. Diane Lanpher (D) to listen in. Lanpher’s daughter, who runs three restaurants in Vermont, including Park Squeeze, was there as was Rep. Matt Birong (D), who owns a neighboring restaurant, 3 Squares Cafe.

“When they said restaurants had to close, we started talking about take out. I said, ‘Alcohol would be huge!’ ” Birong recalled. “Diane tells me to start texting the House speaker who was on the call — we just did it on the fly.”

Seconds later, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) could be heard asking the governor and his staff to allow takeout and alcohol to go for local restaurants.

“That is where we originally planted the seed,” Birong said. The governor granted the measure under an emergency order and months later Birong introduced a bill — which passed — that extended cocktails-to-go through 2023.

Birong said he understands the concerns over increased alcohol consumption, particularly in the first several months of the pandemic, when alcohol sales jumped significantly in Vermont.

“We got our first financial report from the Department of Liquor and Lottery and like, everything in the world was down, spending was down by 60 percent or whatever,” he said. “But not the Department of Liquor. They were up 14½ percent. At the time, we’re thinking they are looking good for revenue, but what does that mean for public health?”

A number of organizations and academic researchers have been trying to answer that question.

A National Institutes of Health study of 13 states found that alcohol sales rose more than 16 percent in July 2020 — for beer, wine and spirits combined — with overall alcohol sales up by 5 percent last year when compared with the three prior years’ sales.

It is unclear how much of the early rise may have been due to people stockpiling their favorite alcoholic beverages.

A Rand Corporation study showed that there was little change in the amount of alcohol that men reported consuming during the first year of the pandemic, but one out of 15 women in the survey who did not report binge drinking in 2019 said they began binge drinking in 2020.

“The things that are concerning from this study was the average number of binge episodes for women did increase,” said Michael S. Pollard, the study’s lead researcher. “A short inventory of problems that measure the negative consequences of drinking also went up for women.”

Statewide medical examiners’ data also reveals some alarming trends. The Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office, for example, said there were 337 deaths attributed to alcohol consumption in 2020, up from 197 in 2019. It represented a 71 percent 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.

The Distilled Spirits Council and other alcohol industry trade groups routinely reference the results of a Gallup poll this year that showed people said their alcohol consumption did not go up during the pandemic. However, the poll –which is typically conducted annually — was not done in 2020 during the height of the pandemic while shutdown orders were in place across the nation. The poll does indicate that most drinkers reported returning to their pre-pandemic levels of alcohol consumption this year.

Birong, too, says things have leveled off in his state, which is why he plans to introduce next month a bill that would allow small distillers to ship directly to customers.

Five such bills passed this year and in 2020. In some states, governors or state regulators have authorized the change allowing liquor to be shipped to customers. In California, for example, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control loosened shipping regulations for small-batch distilleries in March 2020, but that is due to expire at the end of the month.

A bill that would make the change permanent did not get traction last year and is set to die if it doesn’t clear the state Senate by the end of January. However, the Distilled Spirits Council and other alcohol lobbying groups have been successful at getting lawmakers to advocate for them in another way.

More than a dozen state senators signed a Dec. 3 letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and the state alcohol regulator, asking for a deadline extension through 2022, saying that if the regulation expires, some distillers will be forced out of business.

“Allowing the order to lapse would be a grave threat to the California craft distilling industry,” the letter reads. “The loss of [direct-to-consumer] shipping would mean a likelihood of confusion among consumers, who have become accustomed to this new norm, the risk of losing newly created jobs, and a fundamental threat to the viability of small California producers.”

Christiansen, president of Caledonia Spirits in Vermont, said distillers across the country are either trying to get regulations extended or laws passed to make the shipping permanent. As much as 80 percent of sales can take place in the distilleries’ tasting rooms, but with tourism still down and sales of their products to restaurants also down, Christiansen said there is an immediate need to be allowed to ship to loyal customers.

“There is such an amazing amount of uncertainty,” he said, referencing the anticipated surge from the omicron variant. “We keep thinking this is about to be over, but it keeps going.”