The Corona Cocktail Hour: Are We Paying Too High a Price?
Liquor stores are deemed essential across country, but we may be ignoring the darker implications of that decision.
Life under the corona sun, with its daily media barrage of growing cases and increasing restrictions on our personal mobility, has become the new normal.
We have been told by our government and health experts that if we self-quarantine, shelter in place, practice social distancing and wash our hands, the virus will dissipate and life as we used to know it will be restored. We have started teleworking and adopted videoconferencing. We have accepted travel restrictions; the cancelations of major entertainment and sporting events, graduations, weddings, and funerals; and the temporary closures of eat-in restaurants, gyms, hair salons, and even dentist offices.
Most of these guidelines make sense—with one notable exception. Alcohol sales have been deemed an essential business. We are forbidden from attending church or synagogue, but we still have relatively unfettered access to vodka, tequila, bourbon, scotch, and gin.
Liquor stores in most states remain open with the exception of Alabama and Pennsylvania. While Alabama liquor stores are physically closed, customers can make curbside pick-ups. And Pennsylvania residents may purchase beer or wine at grocery stores. In addition, according to Eater, several states, including New York, California, New Hampshire, Maryland, Illinois, Texas, and the District of Columbia, have temporarily loosened regulations to allow restaurants to sell alcohol along with take-out meals, joining the other 12 states that permitted this service prior to the outbreak.
The public is clearly appreciative. According to Nielsen, U.S. sales of alcoholic beverages rose 55 percent during the week that ended on March 21, and 75 percent versus the same period in 2019. Wine and beer sales are up 66 percent and 42 percent respectively.
The media has been largely focused on the community support argument for maintaining consumer access to alcohol during the pandemic. After all, alcohol represents 20 percent of revenue for American restaurants. The current narrative encourages coming together in this time of crisis to help our small businesses and creating a semblance of normalcy for our communities.
However, these feel-good talking points are obfuscating the real reasons for keeping the drinks flowing. Liquor sales bring in significant tax revenue for the federal government. The feds collected close to $9.9 billion in excise tax revenue in 2017, along with additional taxes for state and local government, according to the Tax Policy Center. The government is also terrified of invoking the specter of Prohibition, which resulted in reportedly 10,000 deaths from contaminated bootleg alcohol during its 13-year duration.
There is a third reason. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there are 30 million U.S. adults (14 percent of the adult population) who are classified as heavy drinkers, and within that population, there is a subset of 14.4 million people who are alcoholics. Public health officials maintain that cutting off individuals who are chemically dependent upon alcohol will result in panic in the streets and a run on our hospitals due to the unique nature of alcohol addiction.
As Paul Nestadt, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, describes the situation on NorthJersey.com, “If someone is dependent on alcohol and they can’t get alcohol, then they can go into withdrawal. …Alcohol is one of the few substances that when you’re withdrawing you can actually die. You can’t die from heroin withdrawal or cocaine withdrawal.”
While these health care professionals make compelling arguments, we need to be aware that we may be creating another crisis among other current and recovering addicts.
Recovering addicts who participate in support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous are particularly vulnerable. For them, the support group is a lifeline towards maintaining their sobriety. While AA and other peer organizations have implemented online meetings, counseling sessions, and hotlines to stay in touch with their members during the virus, the loss of personal contact is still destabilizing.
If a support group member does not attend a virtual meeting, there are limited resources available to track him down and find out if he is okay. And that personal outreach from a sponsor or other group member is even more important during a pandemic when contact with other social networks is diminished. The combination of isolation and easy access to alcohol may put some recovering addicts at risk of losing their sobriety.
We also need to be aware of the impact of alcohol on domestic violence.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience physical violence by their intimate partner at some point during their lifetimes which equates to intimate partner violence occurring to over 10 million people a year.” History shows that these statistics skew even higher during times of crisis. As Mother Jones reports, since the onset of the coronavirus, 13 cities and counties have reported an increase in call volume to 911 and domestic violence hotlines. That includes Seattle (22 percent), the site of the first U.S. coronavirus case; San Antonio, Texas (21 percent); Charlotte/Mecklenburg, North Carolina (16 percent); and New York City (7 percent). While we do not have data on how many of these cases involved alcohol, research tells us this is no small problem. For example, the World Health Organization found that 55 percent of domestic violence victims surveyed in the U.S. maintained that their partners were drinking prior to a physical assault.
Alcohol is also a factor in 29 percent of attempted suicides, according to the Alcohol Rehab Guide. Similar to domestic violence, suicide attempts also increase during a crisis. Cities including Los Angeles and Boston are currently witnessing an uptick in calls to suicide prevention hotlines in reaction to the corona. After all, alcohol is a depressant that affects people in different ways based on their psychological state at the time of consumption. If you are already experiencing feelings of isolation, anxiety, and despair, alcohol drags you further into the abyss.
COVID-19 has placed us in relatively uncharted territory. We are still adjusting to a social exile for which we have no recent precedent. Alcohol is certainly an easy way to relax, numb the pain, and minimize the loneliness. Yet as the pandemic rages on, we should be aware that our actions today may have unanticipated consequences tomorrow.