by William Skink
Last February, when the Mayor’s Downtown Advisory Commission was examining how to reduce access to cheap alcohol for those with the most frequent contacts with law enforcement, Dan Brooks wrote a cute little piece of snark about Charming the Snake. And though I agree with the subtitle of his piece–a downtown ban on cheap booze avoids the real issue–I wonder if Brooks truly understands the scope of the problem. From the link:
People drinking on the street is a problem, but I’m not sure the problem is drinking. If the city wants to discourage us from getting wasted downtown, it should ensure that more of us have the opportunity to get wasted at home.
To that end, I draw your attention to the other big story in where to drink King Cobra this week: the opening of eight new units in the John Lynn Apartments. Intended for people who have been homeless and suffer from disabilities, the apartments rent for $250 a month and attracted 55 applicants in three days.
Many of those applicants were living in cars or at the Poverello Center. Chances are some of the money they weren’t spending on rent went to tall boys and pint vodka. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report, 35 percent of people who lived in shelters in 2010 had chronic substance abuse problems.
Maybe those people would stop drinking if they had apartments. Maybe they would just pound tall boys and yell in the comfort of their own homes. Either way, they would not be drunk downtown.
What Brooks is trying cleverly to bring into this conversation is the housing first model, exemplified by the efforts in Salt Lake City. While I appreciate and totally support that approach to homelessness, the issue of alcohol abuse and the resulting carnage it produces is a much bigger issue than how the unsheltered self-medicate with cheap booze.
To drive home this point, here are three headlines posted in just the past 4 hours at the Missoulian:
These are three headlines posted in one day in Missoula. And if you sit in Municipal Court watching arraignments (which I do sometimes) you will see crime after crime where alcohol was a significant factor.
The effort to remove certain products that Dan Brooks may or may not consume (you can get berry-flavored Steel Reserve at the Food Farm for 69 cents a can, Dan) quickly failed. Why? Because lots of money is made selling this nasty swill to poor people.
This article from the Missoula Independent last April featured a casino actually willing to share some sales figures that would have been impacted by this voluntary removal of cheap booze:
At first, Becki Hamilton wasn’t sure what to think. A few weeks ago, two members of the Mayor’s Downtown Advisory Commission presented Hamilton, manager of the Magic Diamond Casino on West Broadway, with proposals designed to curb problems stemming from alcohol abuse. One idea called for alcohol retailers to voluntarily stop selling certain low-cost beverages with high alcohol content, such as pints of cheap vodka and single cans of malt liquor. The other involved the commission creating a list of people who downtown retailers would all agree to stop selling alcohol to, due to their persistently bad behavior while intoxicated.
The first proposal immediately struck Hamilton as unrealistic.
“I just took the things they listed on the draft [proposal], which was about five items, and over a six-month period it was about $100,000 that we would be missing out in sales,” Hamilton says. “And I explained that a lot of the people who buy the single-serve cans and the smaller portioned beers and vodkas and whiskeys aren’t all bums.”
Clearly the business of profiting from alcohol abuse is doing just fine. Four years ago this July, Forbes ran a piece about the recession-resistent sales of booze:
With the holiday weekend approaching and plans for barbeques and parties on the horizon, you are probably packing your cooler with drinks. With the way sales have been trending, it seems most Americans are.
During the recession, alcohol-related industries were some of the few seeing continued growth, proving alcohol to be a frequent purchase for many Americans. Likewise, over the last 12 months, alcohol manufacturing has grown almost 10 percent, and alcohol retailers and wholesalers have seen growth of over 6%. So is alcohol recession-proof? Not necessarily, but it does seem to be recession-resistant. Despite our uncertain economy, alcohol sales continue to rise. In all four of the alcohol-related industries outlined below- beverage manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and bars- revenue growth is at the highest level it’s been since 2007.
If there’s money to be made, why care about the societal cost? And, as Dan Brooks points out, alcohol can provide a temporary respite from the depressing reality of being poor and/or homeless. So why not?
I wrote a post about alcohol abuse back in January of 2013 at the blog I’m now banned from contributing to, which you can read here. In that post I shared some numbers from a study that put the annual cost of Montana’s alcohol abuse problem at a staggering 642 million dollars. Here’s the breakdown:
Alcohol induced medical care: 100.7 million
Criminal justice system: 49.1 million
Early mortality/lost earnings; disease/vehicle accidents: 296.8 million
Lost productivity: 53.3 million
Treatment costs: 10.7 million
That study was done years ago. Since everything seems to go up (except wages) I can only assume the annual cost to Montana is nearing 3/4 of a billion dollars. That is insane.
Alcohol abuse is a huge problem. I struggle myself with drinking too much too often. My grandpa was an alcoholic and verbally abusive to my grandma. Some of the ugliest moments in my own marriage have come from getting drunk and losing control.
I wish we had better treatment options, better recovery models, but we don’t. Instead we have a stagnant economy teetering on the edge of another collapse with the resultant desire to temporarily escape this harsh reality with booze.
And so it goes.