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Mixed Messages: Public Health Advocate-Researcher and NIAAA Official Weigh in on COVID

Mixed Messages: Public Health Advocate-Researcher and NIAAA Official Weigh in on COVID   In the early weeks of the coronavirus, neither public health advocates nor government officials at NIAAA spoke much publicly on the implications of deeming the alcohol beverage industry essential and (mostly) maintaining or even expanding access options to consumers.  That changed earlier this week, when visible figures from both of those worlds surfaced in articles that appeared in The Hill, which closely covers Washington DC news and policy issues, and Newsweek.   The Hill’s Alex Gangitano suggested that the current moves to accommodate consumers and “liberalize” access may last past the crisis.  Not surprisingly, longtime advocate-researcher David Jernigan, of Boston U School of Public Health, offered a predictable warning: “The biggest problem is everything's happening with no eye on the public health impact of alcohol use.” He cited “a reported spike in domestic violence."  Though stores are limiting toilet paper purchases, Jernigan also pointed out, they’re not capping alcohol buys.  "This is a perfect storm of putting people at risk. Two, three years from now, you'll see an uptick. People are putting in place now patterns of drinking that will put them in trouble over time," Jernigan predicted.

From another direction, recall that some in the treatment world questioned the wisdom of Pennsylvania’s (so far unique) decision to shutter its state liquor stores, in effect limiting liquor purchases in the state to direct sales from distilleries who had the proper licenses.  Newsweek pointed out that Dr. Rachel Levine, “Pennsylvania's top health official, said that addressing the needs of alcohol-dependent residents during the shutdown was a ‘very important question.’"  She said two weeks ago that the state was developing a plan “for patients who are addicted to alcohol who would suffer when the liquor stores are closed." So far, the stores have not re-opened.  Online sales resumed earlier this week, though the state “is already struggling to keep up with the ‘overwhelming demand,’” CNN reported yesterday.

Meanwhile, NIAAA’s director George Koob weighed in as well.  "Each year there are roughly 250,000 emergency department visits and 850 deaths related to alcohol withdrawal," he told Newsweek. "Abruptly limiting access to alcohol could lead to an increase in withdrawal among people with severe alcohol use disorder and add to the burden on the healthcare system," he added.  That’s a burden that many systems certainly do not need right now, and may not be able to handle, we’d note.

On the other hand, the fact that many folks drink to "cope with duress," should also be considered in making these policy decisions, Koob acknowledged.  And yet again, Newsweek reminds: “But as tax revenues drop precipitously in the states hit hardest by sputtering economic activity, keeping liquor stores open may offer a small cushion for financially precarious state governments.”

Publishing Info

  • Year: 2020
  • Volume: 37
  • Issue #: 11
Read 296 times Last modified on 04/08/2020