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Wet or dry? Drinking rates coincide with accessibility

Wet or dry? Drinking rates coincide with accessibility


Source: The Clarion-Ledger

Kate Royals

May 26, 2015


People who want to see alcohol sales in Mississippi’s dry counties may reason that if folks really want a drink, they’ll go to any lengths necessary to get it.


While that may be true in some cases, data reveal people in dry (for liquor) counties generally drink less than those living in wet counties. The statement also rings true for different levels of drinking, from moderate to heavy.


According to data from a study of drinking patterns in counties nationwide in the American Journal of Public Health, the highest levels of drinking occur mostly in Mississippi counties with the easiest access to alcohol.


The study, which includes information from 2002 to 2012, breaks drinking rates into three categories. “Any” drinking is defined as consuming at least one alcoholic drink per month, while heavy drinking is an average of one to two drinks for women and men over the past month.


Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men on a single occasion at least once during the past month.


Statewide figures


In 2012, the highest binge drinking rates for both males and females were seen in the three coastal counties.


In Harrison County, 18.5 percent, or nearly 1 in 5 drinking-age residents reported consuming at or above four to five drinks on a single occasion in the past month. In both Hancock and Jackson counties, that number was 18 percent.


Thia Walker, who studies alcohol and drug trends statewide in her role with the Mississippi Department of Mental Health’s Alcohol and Drug Services, said it’s no surprise.


“Where there’s higher access to substances, there will be higher usage,” she said.


Walker said everything from a preponderance of liquor stores to more alcohol advertising in wet counties – which in many cases are also more urban – can influence the amount people drink.


Other factors, of course, can help explain the numbers, such as trauma and socioeconomic status.


Madison County, boasting one of the highest income levels in the state, had the highest percentage of residents reporting having had a drink in the past month.


And as for the high rates of everything from moderate to binge drinking on the coastal counties, Walker cites a number of factors that could explain those numbers.


“One of the things I think with the Coast is they experienced a lot of trauma from environmental disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf Coast oil spill . And you can’t forget about the casinos on the Coast. There’s a lot of drinking at casinos, and as long as you’re gambling you can drink for free,” Walker said.


The highest rate of binge drinking among dry counties was Monroe County, with a rate of 12 percent, followed closely by Stone County with 11.9 percent and Greene County with 11.6 percent.


Metro area drinking


Drinking rates in Rankin County, a dry county with several wet municipalities, provides an interesting glimpse at how the introduction of alcohol sales can impact drinking levels. From 2002 to 2012, the percentage of people who reported drinking one beverage in the last month rose 3.1 percent, while binge drinking rates rose only slightly and heavy drinking rates decreased overall.


In 2009, the city of Flowood approved liquor sales by the glass. In the following years, Pearl and Brandon followed suit, with the Rankin County side of the Reservoir approving liquor by the glass at certain establishments last year.


Alcohol sales are also allowed at the airport in Flowood and Castlewoods Country Club.


Rick Henson, senior pastor at Oakdale Baptist Church in Brandon, has fought alcohol sales in the county over the past decade.


Henson said it was no surprise rates of drinking were lower in dry counties.


“I’ve seen the carnage personally, so that’s why I’m against it,” Henson said. “I’ve taken people to rehab and seen lives ruined by alcohol.”


Law enforcement in Rankin County say either they haven’t seen much difference in alcohol-related arrests as a result of the changes in alcohol sales laws.


Sheriff Bryan Bailey said while he hasn’t noticed an increase in DUIs or alcohol-related arrests, other factors may be at play.


“At one point we had two deputies who specifically targeted drunk drivers,” Bailey explained.


The deputies were funded through a grant, and when the grant ran out, the targeted enforcement did as well, which could skew the numbers.


DUI arrests, which make up the majority of alcohol-related arrests, decreased dramatically in Rankin County over the past three years from 1,503 arrests in 2012 to 872 arrests in 2014.


However, those numbers don’t convince alcohol opponents the danger still isn’t there.


Henson said he believes there’s sometimes a motivation for authorities not to enforce drinking and driving.


“We’ve often wondered, ‘why don’t you sit outside a bar and pick people up?’ ” Henson said. “Because people elect the officials and businesses must grow, so the motivation there is not to overdo it.”


According to Bailey, deputies are spread thin as it is.


“I have half a deputy for every 10,000 people (in the county). Some days we’re struggling just to keep up with calls for service,” Bailey said.


Madison County, a wet county, took the No. 1 spot in the state with 56 percent of its residents having at least one drink in the past month in 2012. Hinds came in fifth.


Hinds and Madison were both in the top 10 for highest rates of binge drinking, while Rankin came in 32nd.


Drinking in dry counties


Smith County, located about 50 miles southeast of Jackson, is one of 23 completely dry counties in the state.


Some 32 percent of county residents reported having at least one drink over the past 30 days in 2012, compared to the statewide average of 38 percent.


Circuit Clerk Anthony Grayson said about 10 years ago, there was a petition circulated for an election that would let voters decide whether to allow alcohol sales in the county.


“The history has been they’ll get the petitions, get the names, then when it begins to be public as to what names are on there, your preacher will call you and they’ll take their name off the list,” Grayson said.


Since 2004, five counties have held elections where residents voted down alcohol salws : Rankin in 2004, Tate in 2005, Pearl River in 2006, Prentiss in 2010 and Union in 2012, according to the Department of Revenue.


Smith County Sheriff Charlie Crumpton said higher levels of drinking in areas with more readily available access to alcohol comes as no surprise.


“The easier the availability, the more drinking you would have,” Crumpton said.


Next door Jasper County, with roughly the same population, is partially wet. Its total DUI arrests from 2012 to 2014 came in at 262, while authorities made 186 arrests in the same time period in Smith County.


Dry counties in Mississippi had an average rate of about 11 percent for binge drinking in 2012. The average rate for any drinking in those counties is about 32 percent, and 4.7 for heavy drinking.