Liquor switch may have unintended consequences

A quarter-cup of bourbon, vanilla wafer crumbs, cocoa powder, chopped pecans and so on. There’s more to it, but those are ingredients in my recipe for bourbon balls.

I make them once a year, for Christmas.

About five years ago, the bottle of bourbon I’d had forever ran out. I went to a state liquor store to buy that namesake ingredient for my cookies.

It was only the second or maybe third time I’d been in a liquor store since moving to Everett — in 1981.

Today, those state-run stores are gone. A new era is here for liquor buyers. The state Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a challenge to Initiative 1183. What Washington voters approved last fall — privatized liquor sales — is now evident on grocery shelves.

In-your-face availability of hard liquor is sure to change consumption habits, maybe even mine.

Instead of picking up a bottle of wine, I might someday buy gin, tonic water and a lime at the grocery store. But retailers new to liquor sales shouldn’t count on big profits from my wallet.

Experts, though, believe sales of spirits will increase significantly.

Dr. Dennis Donovan is director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington. “What impact will convenience have on drinking? There’s been real clear research across time,” said Donovan, also a professor in the UW Department of Psychiatry &Behavioral Sciences. “Privatization of alcohol and ease of access has increased use.”

Mary Segawa, alcohol awareness program manager with the Washington State Liquor Control Board, said research on privatized sales shows big shifts in alcohol use.

She points to an article in the April 2012 issue of The American Journal of Preventative Medicine. The scientific paper reviewed 17 studies looking at the impact of privatization of alcohol sales on per capita consumption.

Taking those 17 studies together — they included self-reporting of consumption in U.S. and European markets — there was an increase of more than 40 percent in sales of privatized alcoholic beverages. The research compilation was done by the Community Preventive Services Task Force, an independent, unpaid group of public health and prevention experts appointed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Finland, according to a study cited in the article, privatization brought a consumption increase of 1.7 liters of pure alcohol per person per year. When some alcohol was re-monopolized in Sweden, the article said, harm related to alcohol use was reduced.

At Jackson High School, intervention specialist Lyn Lauzon doesn’t need to see studies from far-off places to know easy access boosts alcohol use. Lauzon spoke at two recent town hall meetings on underage drinking sponsored by the Everett School District.

“I do know the more accessible it is, the more they’re going to get their hands on it,” Lauzon said of teens and alcohol. “There’s going to be more access all around, at different places and different times,” she said.

Lauzon said many students she sees live with parents who abuse alcohol. “There’s going to be more access for their parents, and that may increase kids’ distress,” she said.

She is also concerned about theft from stores. Teens have told her in confidence about getting beer illegally. “They do beer runs. They run into a store and run out with a 12-pack,” Lauzon said.

She fears even greater temptation for teens to shoplift hard alcohol. “Kids typically drink to get drunk,” she said.

Segawa said the initiative included the doubling of fines for purveyors that sell spirits to minors. There is a provision for a responsible vendor program, although Segawa said that is voluntary and self-monitored. As a reminder to anyone who would buy booze for kids, Segawa said penalties are stiff — up to $5,000 in fines and a year in jail.

“We have no funding to step up enforcement,” said Segawa, adding that the board averages about one enforcement officer per 300 liquor licensees.

Donovan worries that convenience may have a dark side.

“If they have to go to the liquor store, that’s sort of out of the way. If they’re just going to the grocery store, the likelihood is people may choose to buy something they otherwise might not,” he said. “With increased accessibility, the potential for alcohol-related harm — however one defines that — is increased,” Donovan said.

At my house, there’s still enough bourbon for several years of Christmas cookies. By the time I need to buy more, perhaps we’ll know whether convenience is worth the cost.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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