“I think that accessibility is a big part of the problem,” said Amanda Wilson, CEO of North Star, an online treatment program for alcohol use disorders. “And easy access to treatment isn’t that easy.”
Researchers draw a connection between pandemic policies and increased consumption. A study from 2021 first found a link in New Zealand. This year researchers in the USA confirmed these findings in the peer-reviewed journal Substance Abuse.
Still, states eager to help their high streets and boost tax revenues are proving receptive to lobbying from trade associations and companies like the National Restaurant Association and Uber, which deliver restaurant orders and own alcohol delivery service Drizly, to make pandemic rules permanent make .
Lobbyists for easier alcohol regulation are targeting state legislatures in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, among others, to revive pandemic-era liquor regulations that allow expired alcohol to go.
Many federal states have already followed suit. Between 2020 and 2021, 26 of them, as well as Washington, D.C., made the off-premises sale and supply of alcohol permanently legal; another 12 states have temporarily extended their rules for the pandemic period.
More could follow. Just last month, the Passed Michigan Senate a bill making take-out cocktails legal indefinitely. Pennsylvania legislators are considering similar legislation.
Proponents of tighter alcohol access restrictions, such as former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (DR.I.), argue that states would be wiser if they tried to fill budget gaps by raising taxes on alcohol to discourage its consumption. That, he said, will reduce consumption.
“We don’t want to do what we did with tobacco and apply it to alcohol. he asked. “I mean, it’s probably an even worse public health impact.”
The Community Prevention Services Task Forcean independent panel of experts set up by the Department of Health and Human Services to recommend government agencies evidence-based public health measures says both increasing taxes on alcohol and restricting access to it could reduce abuse rates.
But most states have an incentive to side with lobbyists for better access to alcohol: Sales tax revenue, some of it from restaurant and alcohol sales, makes up a large part of their budget. Since it is unlikely that the federal government will be able to provide any more Covid aid, the states will have to balance their budgets again without additional federal funds.
The Tax Policy Center, which analyzes government data, reported earlier this year These state and local liquor taxes accounted for $7.5 billion in 2020 revenue, just slightly less than 2019. States like Texas ($1.1 billion), North Carolina ($550 million), Pennsylvania ($430 million) and Washington ($420 million) charged a disproportionate share.
The toll of alcoholism
A confluence of factors has fueled the rise in alcohol abuse, experts said.
Percy Menzies, president of Assisted Recovery Centers of America, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, said improved access has played a role during the pandemic combined with unemployment.
Another factor, Wilson said, is more people working from home, where alcohol is just a button press away: “Isolation is a big driver … You can easily stay at home and let alcohol get to you.”
Higher levels of substance abuse contribute to an existing public health burden: only 10 percent of the more than 20 million people diagnosed with a substance use disorder receive treatment, according to the latest data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse Coverage 2019.
There are innumerable reasons for this. In addition to the stigma, part of the problem may be that health insurance companies do not adequately cover care. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which Kennedy championed, requires insurers to pay for mental health services like physical health. Still one Report 2022 from the Department of Labour, Health and Human Services and the Department of Treasury found that insurance companies could not demonstrate adequate coverage of mental health or substance abuse treatment on their networks and called for additional enforcement tools.
David Allen, a spokesman for AHIP, the health insurers trade association, said the report is part of a new compliance process and insurers have little time to put together complex analyzes of their data. “This initial experience provided valuable clarification on documentation and certification expectations, and we look forward to continuing to work with Tri departments to improve processes for demonstrating compliance,” he wrote in an email.
Insurers are committed to expanding their behavioral health networks, Allen added.
There have been efforts by the federal government to expand access to addiction help. Earlier this year, HHS offered $1 million in grants to 15 states to establish Medicaid behavioral health clinics that provide mental health and addiction treatment services. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has said he wants to strengthen mental health parity laws and bring mental health into primary care.
But proponents want more. “We know this access [to treatment] correlated with a much higher level of usage,” Kennedy said.
The economics of alcohol policy
State legislatures have been keen to help restaurants, bars and other alcohol-dependent businesses forced to close in the early days of the pandemic by legalizing liquor take-out and delivery.
Cocktails to go were a lifeline and alcohol delivery, once banned in most places, was picking up steam. In 2020, Drizly, an on-demand alcohol delivery platform, grew sales by 350 percent over 2019. In early 2021, Uber increased agreed to purchase the company for over $1 trillion. E-commerce alcohol sales are growing by about 20 percent year-on-year Market research company IWSR.
And while restaurants have recovered — U.S. sales are expected to hit $899 billion this year, surpassing pre-pandemic levels after a $240 million drop in 2020 — they’re still struggling with the fighting aftershocks of the pandemic.
Employment in the industry remains below pre-pandemic levels. Before the arrival of Covid, the leisure and hospitality sector, which includes restaurants and bars, represented 17 million jobs in the US Now it’s about 16 millionaccording to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As lawmakers try to help its downtown areas recover, restaurants are still a priority.
Expanding the availability of alcohol has the added benefit of increasing sales tax revenue. Sales tax accounts for about 30 percent of most state coffers, and even some states with no sales tax — Delaware, Oregonduck Montana — Impose taxes on the manufacture or sale of alcohol.
While government tax revenues have recovered since the first half of 2020 and exceeded pre-pandemic growth, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts, there are concerns that the good times may not last. Fears of a recession in 2023 are spreading and analysts expect tax revenue to grow will slow down over the next year but will not go away.
However, this favors advocates of easier access, and industry lobbyists lean on holdouts like Pennsylvania, where the legislature killed the Democratic governor. Tom Wolf’s pandemic disaster declaration and the relaxation of alcohol rules that came with it in June 2021, citing their neighbors’ decisions.
“Our hope is that the success of surrounding states — Virginia, New York and New Jersey — will embolden states like Pennsylvania to bring it back over the long term,” said Mike Whatley, vice president of state affairs and grassroots representation at the National Restaurant Association.
Advocates of more lenient rules around alcohol met little opposition on public health grounds, with those most concerned about alcoholism focusing on improving access to treatment and mandating safety protocols to prescribe underage and excessive drinking, including automotive technology to prevent drunk driving.
Some state legislators have raised concerns about alcohol being supplied to minors. Alcohol industry lobbyists have responded by working with lawmakers to add safety provisions to the rules. “Make sure the person is identified, make sure they’re not visibly intoxicated, make sure the container is sealed so it won’t be consumed while the person is driving,” Whatley said.
The lack of concerted opposition comes as no surprise to Kennedy, who notes that it is difficult to make a direct link between looser alcohol laws and drug abuse.
Still, he thinks it makes sense to reconsider the trend toward easy access given the devastating effects of rising alcohol abuse.
“We know that not everyone is susceptible, but we also know that there is a subset of people who have this predisposition,” Kennedy said. “We have to understand that the more people get access, the more vulnerable people will be the ones who keel over.”