Al­co­hol in­dus­try serves up clout even amid pan­demic

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD -

The Baltimore Sun got it right in its re­cent edi­to­rial, “If schools aren’t sure they can pro­tect Mary­lan­ders amid a pan­demic, why should we trust bars to?” (July 16). Per­haps it’s not about trust, but about power, money and in­flu­ence.

The cur­rent cri­sis has pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity for a pow­er­ful in­dus­try to flex its mus­cle through lob­by­ing dol­lars and in­flu­ence over pol­i­cy­mak­ers as re­flected in liquor stores be­ing deemed “es­sen­tial.” Cock­tails-to-go and curb­side and home de­liv­ery are per­mit­ted, while mon­i­tor­ing al­co­hol out­lets through rou­tine in­spec­tions and com­pli­ance checks have been lim­ited, and in some cases, dis­cour­aged. Re­cently, lo­cal health de­part­ments reached out to the state health de­part­ment ask­ing them to re­new pre­vi­ous re­stric­tions on bars and restau­rants due to new spikes in coron­avirus cases.

We echo the call to let the data drive pol­icy de­ci­sions. These re­cent in­creases in COVID-19 cases across the coun­try have been tied, in part, to peo­ple re­turn­ing to bars and par­ties. Fur­ther­more, data re­leased from a re­cent study of al­co­hol con­sump­tion dur­ing this pan­demic by the Re­search Tri­an­gle In­sti­tute In­ter­na­tional, showed sig­nif­i­cant in­creases in av­er­age drinks per day, ex­ceed­ing cer­tain drink­ing guide­lines, and binge drink­ing dur­ing the pan­demic.

Gov­er­nors through­out the coun­try have loos­ened con­trols on al­co­hol sales as a mech­a­nism to pro­vide eco­nomic re­lief to al­co­hol out­lets and some leg­is­la­tures are fol­low­ing that lead. We can see the pub­lic health ef­fects of higher liquor sales with the rise in COVID-19 cases and with the in­crease in un­der­ly­ing prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with al­co­hol con­sump­tion. To date, lit­tle at­ten­tion is be­ing spent on changes in con­sump­tion and the im­pact on men­tal health, hospi­tal re­sources and en­force­ment. Ex­pand­ing ac­cess and avail­abil­ity dur­ing this pan­demic, even tem­po­rar­ily, has con­se­quences. How do we guar­an­tee our cities, coun­ties and state will have re­sources to mon­i­tor these new ex­pan­sions through al­co­hol in­spec­tors and en­force­ment when such re­sources have been de­clin­ing for years?

We urge our lead­ers to lead. Fol­low the data. Seek out the ex­perts. And shut the door to un­fet­tered ac­cess by al­co­hol in­dus­try lob­by­ists who have been us­ing this pan­demic and the sym­pa­thy it has gen­er­ated to grow their mar­ket share at the pub­lic’s ex­pense. There should be no ques­tion that this in­creased ac­cess was not in line with best prac­tices and should only be tem­po­rary.

We re­main hope­ful that Mary­land will be a leader, as we have on many other pub­lic health is­sues. We have a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity now through proac­tive state lead­er­ship to move the new Al­co­hol and To­bacco Com­mis­sion for­ward. Slated to be stood up this year, its fund­ing was just elim­i­nated through the re­cent bud­get cuts from Gov. Larry Ho­gan. This com­mis­sion has the po­ten­tial to bring progress and con­sis­tent pub­lic health up­dates to Mary­land’s al­co­hol laws. We are ea­ger for this ef­fort to con­tinue and urge our state lead­ers to not get side­tracked by the chaos of this pan­demic. This com­mis­sion could pro­vide nec­es­sary guid­ance and ex­per­tise to help state and lo­cal lead­ers pri­or­i­tize the pub­lic’s health and safety. Let’s not ex­change one pub­lic health cri­sis for an­other.

Raimee Eck and Erica Hertz Weiss, Columbia

The writ­ers are co-chairs of the ad­vo­cacy com­mit­tee of the Mary­land Pub­lic Health As­so­ci­a­tion.

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