Retail Alcohol Density and Public Safety

Opponents of reform repeatedly argue that making alcohol easier to obtain by permitting more retail outlets creates more alcohol-related harms. With the same concern of an overanxious parent, they worry that proximity to alcohol automatically means increased consumption of alcohol. It’s like they don’t trust their kids or something.

The evidence appears to tell a different story and it is evidence with which legislators should familiarize themselves. There is a reasonable chance, after all, that Gov. Snyder may propose ending the liquor license “half-mile rule” and or start permitting sales of beer and wine at farmers markets. (Interestingly, there is no such limit placed on beer and wine retail establishments.) With some exceptions, there is currently a prohibition against liquor stores locating within a half mile of each other.

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Recent and comprehensive scholarly studies that look at retail density and public safety — one of which is Michigan-specific— present evidence that may seem counterintuitive: More retail density appears to reduce alcohol-related harms.

Consider the following:

  • A 2010 doctoral thesis out of the University of Michigan examined alcohol establishment density and public safety in the state of Michigan. The author concluded that “For both men and women, higher density of alcohol establishments was related to lower alcohol consumption (quantity/frequency), binge drinking, and drink/driving [sic].”
  • Another 2010 study, this one by Gabriel Picone et al., titled “The Effects of Residential Proximity to Bars on Alcohol Consumption,” looked at data ranging from 1985 to 2001 in four American cities for an association between consumption of alcohol and proximity of on-site alcohol establishments and peoples’ homes. They write “When person-specific fixed effects are included, the relationship between alcohol consumption and the number of bars within a 0.5 km radius of a person’s residence disappears.”
  • A 2003 study by economist Patrick McCarthy looked at retail alcohol density and automobile related crashes in 111 cities throughout California during the 1980s. He found, among other things, that increases in density for off-site (carry out) establishments was associated with decreases in alcohol-related fatal and non-fatal auto crashes. He did find that on-site seller density was associated with higher non-fatal crashes but on balance argued increasing both on and off-site licenses for beer and wine “will be safety-enhancing.”

The coming debate over alcohol control reform is bound to feature opposition from well-intentioned people who honestly believe that Michigan’s current alcohol control scheme provides adequate public protection at a reasonable price. But no amount of a parent’s sanctimonious finger waving is going to overcome the hard facts.

Recent and very comprehensive, scholarly, peer-reviewed evidence that controls for a wide variety of variables that might otherwise influence measures of alcohol-related harms of retail density suggest that they are wrong.


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