Easing alcohol access in NC will raise risks

Two bills proposed in the General Assembly seek to increase alcohol outlets in the state and expand alcohol advertising (YALONDA M. JAMES - yjames@charlotteobserver.com)
Two bills proposed in the General Assembly seek to increase alcohol outlets in the state and expand alcohol advertising (YALONDA M. JAMES - yjames@charlotteobserver.com) Staff Photographer

We want to offer the community health response to two bills in the General Assembly that loom large and will change the alcohol environment from one of balance to one of unfettered access and availability. House Bill 536 and House Bill 971 seek to increase alcohol outlets in the state, expand alcohol advertising and sales on college campuses and encourage harmful levels of alcohol consumption for the general public.

These proposals should give pause to anyone who has been watching the state’s alcohol death toll rise. For nearly the last two decades (2000-2017), alcohol attributable deaths (acute and chronic) have risen 62 percent. If you just look at alcohol-involved poisoning deaths the toll is even greater, rising almost 650 percent in the same time period. With nearly 4,000 alcohol attributable deaths in 2017, costing our state over $7 billion annually and nearly 40 percent of that tab paid by government, one must ask why the sponsors of these proposals think the state needs more access and availability to a product that causes serious injury and death in our communities.

One doesn’t have to search far for these data. Our very own State Division of Public Health created an Alcohol Data Dashboard to help North Carolinians understand the impact of alcohol on injury and death.

Alcohol’s devastation goes to the heart of the opioid epidemic. In North Carolina, polysubstance use is a significant one. From 2008 to 2017, unintentional opioid overdoses deaths (illicit and prescription combined) involving alcohol increased from 6.5 percent in 2008 to 13.4 percent in 2017.

The choice is stark and clear: legislators have the chance to use sound policy judgment and side with health to protect North Carolina families and communities or with profit to help an already powerful industry increase its revenues.

At a time when states are holding the pharmaceutical industry responsible for engaging in dangerous and predatory practices for their profit-seeking tactics, why would we give the alcohol industry a pass, an industry that is not only contributing to this epidemic but causing even more devastation and despair in our families and communities.

Make no mistake, supporting these proposals is a move that would cause serious public health and safety harm from Wilmington to Asheville for years to come.

This is more than a discussion around what’s good for business or consumer convenience. It’s about protecting that 21-year-old from drinking himself to death, it’s about the middle-aged woman prescribed opioids to deal with chronic pain who drinks a half a bottle of wine a night and doesn’t understand mixing these substances is deadly, it’s about liquor stores on every block and alcohol promotions as end caps in our grocery stores as children pass by. It’s about the very fabric of our community. These policy decisions matter and reflect our values.

North Carolina ranks high, 7th in the nation for alcohol revenue and low, 44th, in alcohol consumption. We’ve hit the sweet spot with our alcohol policies - high in revenue collection and low in our alcohol consumption. We must ask our legislators a hard question: why change our laws when they are working for the vast majority of North Carolinians?

If HB 536 or HB 971 move forward, North Carolina will look vastly different in the years ahead. We’re already standing at the precipice; either proposal will drive us right over that edge. Let’s not forget we have alcohol control policies for one reason, to protect the public from a product that is known to cause harm. Yet they are also there to keep balance between protecting public order while fostering competition among market participants.

These proposals are anything but balanced. They fly in the face of rationale thought when the evidence is so clear and obvious to the contrary. We don’t have to wonder what policies work to prevent alcohol harm. The evidence has been exhaustively studied. We do, however, need the courage to keep them intact. We’re counting on reasonable minds prevailing for all North Carolinians in defeating these bills. The state’s alcohol regulatory control system is intended to protect our residents not be a brokerage tool to increased profits for the very industry it’s intended to oversee.

Sarah Potter, MPA, is the executive director of the Addiction Professionals of North Carolina and previously was the Chief of Community Wellness, Prevention, and Health Integration for the North Carolina Division of Mental Health.