A battle is brewing over the industry push to make booze-to-go permanent in the US post-pandemic. Public health groups fear they're losing the fight.
- More than 30 states allowed alcohol takeout and delivery during the pandemic.
- Many states, backed by restaurants and alcohol groups, want it to become a permanent fixture.
- But public health groups worry that there will be consequences from overly lax alcohol regulations.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
The coronavirus pandemic has been difficult, but one thing has become easy: getting alcohol without ever leaving the house.
Over the last year, people across the US have been able to buy pre-mixed margaritas sealed and tucked into a taco dinner-to-go. They can order a crate of wine shipped to their front doors ahead of a virtual tasting. A large cheese pizza can easily be delivered to their homes with a bottle of beer.
These alcohol-to-go measures put in place by governors in more than 30 states were meant to be temporary moves to help restaurants and other hospitality businesses stay afloat during a crisis that kept their customers at home and badly pummeled their bottom lines. The relaxed rules also benefited alcohol delivery apps such as Drizly.
Businesses and their clientele loved the convenient new measures and now they don’t want to go back to pre-pandemic restrictions.
Public health groups are sounding the alarm — and likely losing the battle — as restaurant and alcohol trade associations push to make booze-to-go a permanent feature of American life across the country.
Organizations such as the American Public Health Association and the US Alcohol Policy Alliance want alcohol access to be more limited and warn that making it too easily available could lead to increases in underage drinking, addiction, drunken driving, injuries, violence, and chronic health problems.
They contend that under the new delivery options there’s no fool-proof way to ensure that minors are not the ones ordering or receiving the alcohol. It’s not clear how frequently or effectively states are enforcing ID checks when drivers deliver alcoholic beverages to homes.
“The more available alcohol is, the more we are likely to see increases in drinking and the harms associated with that,” said Alicia Sparks, vice chair of the Alcohol Policy Alliance that works with state coalitions to oppose loosening alcohol laws.
“We fully support small businesses,” added Sparks, who is also senior associate at Abt Associates. “We just want to be thinking of how we can help them grow in a way that’s safer for communities.”
Both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention want governments to limit access to alcohol, not make it more available. For the most part, these public health groups are on the losing side of the fight.
As the coronavirus took hold of the US last year, states quickly declared alcohol retailers “essential business” during the pandemic. Ohio, Iowa, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia already made to-go drinks permanent. Other states including Florida, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Texas are set to be next.
“It is extremely popular,” Texas Sen. Kelly Hancock, a Republican who introduced a bill to permanently allow alcohol pickup with food from restaurants, told Insider. “We implemented it in order to try to help restaurants out and what we found is over 80% of the population loved it, took advantage of it, and it just seemed to go very well.”
Hancock said it helped businesses stay afloat during the pandemic. “It is our belief that it will continue to be good for Texas as we continue to grow and get out of the pandemic,” he said.
But Nicole Holt, chief executive for Texans for Safe and Drug-Free Youth, wants the Lone Star State to slow down and set up a task force that would evaluate the effects of the new alcohol laws and see how companies are restricting sales to minors.
“Often the conversations we have on these policies are a business conversation,” Holt, who is also chair of the Alcohol Policy Alliance, told Insider. “But it’s not a business decision alone. It’s a business and a public health issue.”
‘An important lifeline’
The outside push to permanently change laws is coming from the National Restaurant Association and the Distilled Spirits Council, a DC-based trade group representing the liquor industry.
Mike Whatley, the National Restaurant Association’s vice president for state affairs and grassroots advocacy, told Insider that the organization hopes 40 states will jump on board with permanent alcohol allowances for restaurants by the end of the year.
The push to relax alcohol laws was slowly underway for years before the pandemic as states gutted rules such as Sunday sales bans or prohibiting sales in grocery stores. Without the pandemic, Whatley said, changes to alcohol to-go laws would have taken a decade to materialize.
“It has been huge and an important lifeline for the industry,” Whatley said. The association estimated that alcohol accounted for about 10% of to-go sales and allowed businesses to bring back one or two workers on average who would have otherwise remained jobless.
The industry still suffered major losses, however. More than 110,000 restaurants closed temporarily or for good during the pandemic as sales dropped by more than $255 billion, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Other parts of the alcohol market got a makeover during the pandemic. People in most states could already order some alcohol home delivery before the crisis, but COVID drew even more states into the fray including New Mexico, Georgia, and — soon — Mississippi.
Drizly, an online company that arranges alcohol deliveries from local liquor stores, said its business grew 350% in 2020 compared to 2019.
“We had increased demand immediately as the pandemic set in,” Jaci Flug, general counsel and senior vice president for Drizly, told Insider. She said more customers realized during the pandemic that having alcohol delivered was an option. The app’s customer base increased 136% during the second quarter of 2020, Flug said.
Distillers, who were forced to shut down tasting rooms and tours during the pandemic, also made inroads. Six new states allowed distillers to ship their products to in-state consumers temporarily during the pandemic — an increase from 10 states and the District of Columbia that were allowed to do this before the pandemic.
But the total is still lower than allowances for wine deliveries, which were already permitted in 45 states for years before the pandemic.
“There is no reason adult spirits consumers should be barred from the same convenient and responsible market access channel enjoyed by adult wine consumers,” Lisa Hawkins, Distilled Spirits Council spokeswoman, said.
Growing public health concerns
Proponents of the changes say they view them as a modernization of US alcohol laws. While certain areas are relaxing rules left and right, some US counties are still “dry,” meaning they prohibit any alcohol sales. Alcohol restrictions are controversial in the US because of the country’s failed history with Prohibition and because they’d affect people who drink only moderately.
But there’s a growing outcry from state addiction prevention and treatment organizations and groups that work to reduce drunk driving. Public health organizations and some federal agencies also have grown increasingly vocal against alcohol, the misuse of which contributes to an estimated 88,000 deaths a year. In June 2020, the American Cancer Society issued new guidance saying it was best for people to avoid alcohol altogether.
Rather than undoing restrictions, public health groups have recommended doubling down by limiting when and where alcohol can be sold, banning alcohol advertising, adding cancer warning labels to cans and bottles, and increasing taxes on beverages. The surgeon general’s 2016 report on addiction also recommended some of those restrictions.
Alcohol control groups have had mixed success. They helped kill a bill in Oregon in February 2020 that would have increased alcohol delivery by third-party apps like PostMates. Still, the state ended up permitting alcohol curbside pickup and delivery during the pandemic, and then made the rules permanent.
Alcohol opponents also tried to push for an increase in taxes on beer and wine in Oregon to pay for addiction treatment. The measure initially gained momentum but was defeated in March.
Oregon Recovers, an addiction prevention and treatment advocacy organization, is now pushing for the state to set up a task force to reduce alcohol consumption by 15%.
“The prevention field is out-funded, out-lobbied, and it’s hard to change the minds of policymakers,” Sparks of the Alcohol Policy Alliance said.
A lack of data
Besides lacking big-money backing, alcohol control groups also don’t have sufficient data yet about pandemic drinking to bolster their arguments. Some studies suggest that people in the US drank more alcohol during the crisis, but the pandemic is still ongoing and annual data collection takes time.
The research firm Nielsen found that alcohol sales ending in March were up about 17.8% compared with the same 52-week period prior, before the pandemic. But the figures only include retail facilities so they are difficult to compare directly with previous years given that they do not include alcohol sales at bars and restaurants. It’s possible people shifted to drinking at home, while not necessarily imbibing more overall.
It’s also too soon to determine whether loosened alcohol laws contributed to increases in drunken driving accidents. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s traffic fatality data on crashes for the first nine months of 2020 showed an increase in traffic fatalities but didn’t include statistics on contributing factors.
But one study it conducted on five trauma centers showed an increased prevalence of the presence of drugs and alcohol among fatally or seriously injured drivers. Adam Snider, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said states are reporting an uptick in risky driving behavior during the pandemic, including speeding and not wearing seat belts.
“There are several factors at play, and it’s hard to know how much can be attributed directly to loosened alcohol restrictions,” Snider said. “The most risk-averse people might have stayed home and off of roads, and the study of the five trauma centers indicates that certain drug use rates also increased.”
New safety rules
Hancock, the Texas senator, said lawmakers have been thinking through many of the potential safety problems that could emerge from alcohol delivery laws.
“In every society, you have bad actors, that’s why we have investigation and oversight,” he said.
Business groups such as the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America issued new alcohol safety recommendations for states. Examples include having the delivery person conduct legal drinking age verification and providing beverages in sealed containers with proper labeling.
“Convenience and compliance can and should coexist,” Michael Bilello, spokesman for the group, said.
It’s not clear exactly how judiciously businesses and delivery apps all over the US are following alcohol laws. In California, the Alcoholic Beverage Control issued 214 citations for delivery drivers who failed to check ID during a recent undercover enforcement operation.
The National Restaurant Association and the Distilled Spirits Council said they’re working with states on crafting specific alcohol rules, such as recommending that restaurant staff place a pickup order that contains alcohol into the trunk of a customer’s car rather than handing it to them in the front seat.
Laws applying to restaurants specify that customers must order prepared food with alcohol and there is typically a limit of one or two drink orders allowed per meal.
Whatley of the National Restaurant Association acknowledged the issue can be challenging when third-party delivery services, such as Uber Eats or Grubhub, are involved. He said the association was closely working with companies and state legislatures about how delivery workers should check IDs to ensure customers aren’t under 21.
“Health and safety is paramount to this,” Whatley said. “This is a privilege restaurants got during the pandemic that we don’t want to lose.”
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