Liquor privatization: Did the fears come true?
Highway deaths are down, ER visits linked to alcohol are up — but it’s not yet possible to draw clear conclusions linking those statistics and others to Washington’s 2-year-old alcohol law.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Predictions were dire: Carnage. Crime. Corruption of youth.
Those were the dangers Washington residents were warned of in 2011 when nearly 59 percent of voters opted to end the state’s monopoly on the liquor business.
Today, with booze available at more than four times as many locations, the scene may still look odd to longtime state residents:
Captain Morgan rum one aisle over from Cap’n Crunch cereal at a North Seattle Rite Aid. Vodka flavors from watermelon to “fluffed marshmallow” at Total Wine & More in Lynnwood. Costco shoppers picking up tall bottles of booze along with their paper towels and canned tuna.
But two years into privatization — which took effect in June 2012 — highway deaths and DUI stops have continued to decline, and those concerned about the social ills of private booze sales are waiting for further data to assess the impacts.
“There hasn’t been some bolt out of the blue that changes everything,” said the Salvation Army’s Capt. Dana Libby, director of the agency’s Seattle Social Services office, who sees the results of alcohol abuse on a daily basis.
Getting a handle on how much has really changed — assessing the impact on people’s lives — is still a work in progress, and leads to the mining of some apparently contradictory information.
For example, the state liquor board was recently briefed on a study showing an increasing number of high-school students found it “very easy” to get alcohol, and fewer believed drinking at their age is wrong.
But the same survey, which was taken five months into privatization, also showed alcohol use by middle- and high-school students had been falling steadily since 1998, and was at the lowest level since the survey was first taken in 1990.
Highway deaths declining
Preliminary data from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission indicates the state had 435 traffic deaths last year, including 106 in which the driver was impaired by alcohol. Five years earlier, there were 521 fatalities, of which 166 involved alcohol.
“Could they be even more dramatically reduced if we didn’t have private liquor sales? That’s impossible to say,” said Washington State Patrol Lt. Rob Sharpe, commander of the agency’s impaired-driving section.
Any examination of highway deaths needs to take into account that even before liquor privatization, reducing the death toll has been a public-policy priority.
Target Zero, a multiagency effort that began in 2010, is working to make drivers safer through enforcement, education, improved emergency response — even highway engineering.
Sharpe said one indicator of the number of impaired drivers on the road is how many breath tests are administered by law-enforcement agencies across the state.
The 33,000 tests administered last year reflect a 20 percent drop since 2011, the last full year before privatization.
But Sharpe adds a caution, noting that some law-enforcement agencies, due to budget or recruiting issues, have been unable to fill all their front-line positions.
“When staff levels drop, officers are not there to make DUI arrests,” he said.
Shelly Baldwin, impaired-driving program manager for the Traffic Safety Commission, said it’s too early to identify any trend in traffic crashes since liquor sales expanded.
The reduction in fatalities, she said, reflects that “the state has been working hard to combat impaired driving.”
Shoplifters force changes
Have private liquor sales, which began in June 2012, triggered a crime wave?
Not one that has caught the attention of spokeswomen for the Seattle Police Department or the King County Sheriff’s Office.
Detective Renee Witt said the only crime Seattle officers have clearly seen increasing with broader alcohol sales has been the obvious one: shoplifting of alcohol.
Some store owners underestimated the brazenness and determination of booze-pinchers, some of whom resell their take once they’re outside. Anti-theft devices around the neck of a bottle sound an alert when taken out of the store, but by then, the thief has a head start.
To fight back, some stores moved more liquor to locked display cases or to shelves behind the counter.
At a QFC in Ballard, metal gates at each end of the liquor aisle can be opened only by an employee, and a worker there said gates are being installed at other stores as well.
Hospital visits: Up under liquor law?
Two researchers tracking the effects of liquor privatization told the Liquor Control Board in May that since the initiative took effect, alcohol-related emergency-room visits have increased.
The ongoing study is being conducted by Linda Becker, a research manager with the state Department of Social and Health Services, and Julia Dilley, a research scientist with the Multnomah (Oregon) County Health Authority.
Melding data from several sources, Dilley and Becker said hospital emergency rooms in King County saw 50 percent more alcohol-related cases in the first 16 months of privatization than would have been expected — translating into some 5,500 “extra” cases.
“I can say that’s an increase and appears to be in large magnitudes. Others would have to say whether that’s cause for alarm,” Dilley said.
The work by Dilley and Becker, which will continue into next year, is being funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a national philanthropic organization active on health-care issues.
At the liquor-board meeting, Dilley and Becker also presented survey data, collected seven months after private liquor sales started, showing that the portion of Washington adults who do at least “any drinking” had increased from 59.5 to 61.4 percent — an increase the researchers call small but statistically significant.
Also in late 2012, the average number of drinks that men said they had on their heaviest drinking day in the previous month was 4.3, up from 3.9 in late 2011. That still falls below what’s considered “binge drinking,” which is 5 or more drinks in a day for men, 4 or more for women.
Industry fires back
David Ozgo, chief economist for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, criticized the Dilley-Becker presentation, saying the foundation funding it “is notoriously anti-alcohol.”
He said Dilley and Becker failed to include survey information from the Centers for Disease Control that shows teen alcohol use in Seattle has been declining.
Ozgo also took exception to the findings on emergency-room visits. He said the study didn’t report what type of alcohol was connected with emergency-room visits, and didn’t include information on whether the ER visits might also have been connected to marijuana use.
A law encouraging young people to acknowledge the role of alcohol in an ER visit without fearing prosecution could have boosted the number of cases in which alcohol use was recorded, he said.
“My concern is kids”
Some who deal daily with the consequences of alcohol abuse say the effects of privatization may take years to ascertain.
The Salvation Army’s Capt. Libby said adults hooked on alcohol had little trouble getting it before privatization, so having it more available now may not have changed much for them.
The change in liquor sales hasn’t altered his observation that alcohol and/or drug addiction is at work in 80 percent of the people served through Salvation Army’s area residential and shelter programs, which served just more than 3,200 last year.
Another Salvation Army leader, Capt. Timothy Rockey, who runs the agency’s Adult Rehabilitation Center in Seattle, said he continues to fear that privatization is a ticking time bomb.
“My concern is the kids,” said Rockey, who said he was an alcoholic in his teen years and routinely stole liquor. “We’re reducing the stigma of alcohol use, and making it more socially acceptable.”
More findings to come
The Dilley-Becker study is funded through the middle of next year and will cover an array of topics for which information is just starting to come out.
In December, Dilley said, she expects to present information looking at changes under liquor privatization in such areas as deaths, crime, hospitalizations and alcohol treatment.
And next spring, researchers will have analyzed results of a state “Healthy Youth Survey” to be taken this fall covering health practices and concerns of Washington students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades.
That survey is conducted every other year, so the one to be taken this fall will be the first one following an extended period of private liquor sales.
Jack Broom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2222