Editor’s note: The Jackson County Prevention Coalition is part of the Alliance of Coalitions for Change.
We know that spirits consumption, both for adults and youth, is on the rise nationwide and in Iowa. While underage drinking in Iowa had been decreasing significantly over the past 15 years, the most recent Iowa Youth Survey showed that alcohol use among 8th graders increased a whopping 35% from 2016 to 2018. Alcohol-involved deaths have doubled in the past decade and Iowans are dying from both short-term alcohol harms, such as alcohol-impaired driving and suicides, and long-term alcohol harms, including alcohol-related cancers and liver cirrhosis.
However, we can work to prevent youth drinking and this tragic loss of life. Research has made it clear that increases in alcohol accessibility are directly related to increases in sales, consumption, and harms. There is a tremendous rise in convenience stores selling hard liquor in our state, particularly since 2012 after legislation allowed gas stations to expand their product offerings.
A couple of policies known to prevent youth use and excessive alcohol consumption include monitoring youth access to alcohol through routine alcohol compliance checks and instituting pricing controls that increase the price of the alcohol.
There is current discussion in Iowa to set a minimum price floor on a subset of spirit-based products. This is an opportunity to address substance use harms. Liquor is a product that is increasingly the drink of choice in Iowa behind beer. In Iowa, we recognize the fact that spirits have unique harms for individuals and communities by having the state serve as the wholesaler of the product.
We often hear of the concerns regarding the pandemic and its effects on small businesses. We agree that small businesses are vitally important to each and every community in Iowa.
The current reality is spirits manufacturers continue to see profit increases, including in the midst of the pandemic. Liquor sales in Iowa are up 8.2% from last year based on the new Alcohol Beverage Division (ABD) annual report. These data suggest spirits producers are not hurting, but our youth and communities in Iowa certainly are.
Dr. Paul Gilbert, University of Iowa College of Public Health assistant professor who researches drinking patterns and alcohol related harms, said during a recent ABD Commission meeting, “The number of Iowans who are heavy and binge drinkers is consistently above the national average.”
In fact, the recent America’s Health Rankings moved Iowa down from having the second highest excessive drinking rate in the nation to the fifth highest between their 2019 and 2020 reports, from 23.7% to 22.5% respectively. A step in the right direction, but still an extremely high rate and ranking.
The ABD report notes $133 million was added to the state’s general fund. Excessive drinking exerts a tremendous economic burden. According to the CDC, excessive drinking in Iowa costs $1.9 billion each year which includes lost work productivity, health care expenses, criminal justice, motor vehicle crash costs, and property damage. This $1.9 billion in costs to Iowans each year is around $1.59 per drink and $635 per person, even for the 40% of Iowans who have not consumed alcohol in the past 30 days.
We know the price floor is not a silver bullet, but it is a start.
Dr. Gilbert stated, “Taxation and price controls are recommended strategies with a strong base of scientific evidence” and “recent research has shown that alcohol taxes do not generate enough revenue to offset alcohol-related expenses.”
As prevention specialists working at the local level, this pricing policy can help us do our job more effectively by directly reducing underage drinking and heavy drinking among adults, thereby preventing alcohol-related deaths in Iowa. Please understand, price matters, particularly for young people and heavy drinkers.
The Alliance of Coalitions for Change, a statewide network, is in full support of the minimum price floor on the small percentage of specific products identified to reduce both consumption levels of high-risk populations and the health and societal harms. We are also in support of a portion of the increased profits coming from hard liquor sales to be directed to county prevention coalitions and evidence-based strategies such as an alcohol compliance check system in Iowa like tobacco has. Now is the time to implement effective strategies to reduce societal costs and save lives.
In the words of our alcohol research experts in Iowa, “The COVID-19 pandemic makes action to reduce drinking especially important. One of the direct effects of alcohol is that it weakens the body’s immune response. We also know that exposure to traumatic events is associated with heavier drinking and greater likelihood of developing alcohol dependence. We’re starting to see indications of increased drinking in Iowa. An increase in alcohol-related problems cannot be far behind.”