By L.A. Williams
Healthy Communities NC
RALEIGH – Research shows that North Carolina has a liquor system that serves its citizens better than most states, and efforts to privatize liquor sales would negatively impact public health and safety and result in irreversible harms — that was the core message of a press conference held this morning at the State Legislature by Healthy Communities NC- Safeguarding Against Alcohol Harms.
Members of the coalition — an informal, volunteer group committed to preventing alcohol-related problems — addressed the Program Evaluation Division’s February 11 report on the Alcohol Beverage Control system, reminding those present that the PED did not recommend privatization.
“PED found that among the southeastern states, North Carolina collects the most revenue per gallon, has the lowest outlet density and has the second lowest per capita consumption. So, what does this mean? It means that the system we have is working and it is working to protect our public health, safety and our welfare,” Rep. Shelly Willingham (D-Edgecombe) told the crowd, reminding them that the state’s current system, whereby 168 local ABC boards operate 433 stores and employ more than 2,870 people, does not use state funds. Instead, boards are established by local elections and profits distributed to local government.
Rep. Pat McElraft (R-Carteret) said those profits added up to $80 million in fiscal year 2018, reducing the need to increase local property taxes.
“Privatization would not result in any downsizing of state government,” McElraft said. What it could do, she said, is bring liquor sales to about 9,000 current beer and wine off-premises outlets that can operate from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.
“When we formulate alcohol policy, we need to be mindful both of the responsible alcohol consumer, but also of the problem drinker,” McElraft added. She said the Department of Health and Human Services’ website shows alcohol abuse as the third leading preventable cause of death in North Carolina.
The PED report estimates liquor consumption would increase by 20 percent with privatization and that retail prices would jump more than 15 percent under one model.
The increased consumption coupled with the end of local funding for law enforcement and treatment facilities would be a recipe for disaster, according to Wrightsville Beach Police Chief Dan House and Chris Budnick, executive director of Healing Transitions, both of whom spoke at the press conference.
“The direct correlation between consumption of alcohol with incidents of assaults, domestic violence, accidents, and personal injury are well-known and undisputed. It follows that substantially increasing the outlets where liquor is sold, increasing the hours of sale, increased promotion of liquor sales and allowing sales at groceries, pharmacies, convenience stores would necessarily increase the consumption of liquor and the crime that goes along with it,” said House, who also serves as president of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police. He said law enforcement is already overwhelmed with crime related to substance abuse issues and does not need to be further strained with problems associated with increased consumption of alcohol. Nor can agencies afford the loss of funding that privatization would bring, House said.
He said the New Hanover County ABC Board dedicated $495,642 to local law enforcement last year, contracting with the Sheriff’s Office for five deputies focusing on ABC laws and with the Wilmington Police Department for two officers for the City’s Downtown Task Force. The board invested another half million dollars to help provide critical services in Wrightsville Beach, House said. House added that without these funds, he would lose his entire operating budget.
“Our current system is working and we’d like to see that stay in place,” he concluded.
Budnick, whose nonprofit serves homeless, uninsured and underserved individuals with alcohol and other drug problems, said the Wake County ABC Board provides $1.2 million of his $3.5 million annual budget and that statewide ABC boards spent $13 million for local treatment, education, and research of substance abuse problems last fiscal year.
Without funding from the Wake ABC Board, Budnick said Healing Transitions would have had to turn people away, “increasing the risk to public health and public safety to individuals, their families, and our community, while causing additional strain to our emergency departments and jails.” He said that since 2007, their alumni have paid an estimated $30 million in taxes through employment and many are now homeowners. “At a cost of $35.00 per day, Healing Transitions is a tremendous return on investment and our alumni are contributing to the community instead of costing the community.
Dr. Nikki Binz, associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of North Carolina, told the crowd that her job gives her a front-row seat to “the negative impacts of excessive drinking and misuse of alcohol on individuals and communities” and that she felt compelled to encourage North Carolinians “to support a system of alcohol control that gives appropriate consideration to preventing what I see and treat every day.”
“Not one shift goes by that I am not treating the results of either a night of excessive consumption or the long-term consequences of alcohol misuse,” Binz said, sharing true tales of catastrophic injuries and illness, including the story of a 20-year-old who recently came to the ED with the symptoms of “a full-blown alcohol-dependent individual who had been drinking for decades.”
“It is wise to learn from the experience of others, and in medicine it is especially important to know the evidence and use it to protect the health and safety of our individuals and communities,” Binz added. “For example, data from Washington state teaches us that EDs (emergency departments) saw significant increases in alcohol-related visits post privatization of alcohol sales. In fact in the 16 months following the decision to privatize its system, there were 5,500 more alcohol-related ED visits in one single county alone.”
To conclude the press conference, the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, spoke on behalf of the faith community, addressing the state government’s role in protecting and preserving the unalienable rights of the people and what that will mean when expected calls for privatization arise.
“We should understand it would be the biggest issue concerning alcohol policy that North Carolina’s citizens have faced since Prohibition,” Creech said, commending the state for its current approach to “the sensitive and seriously consequential nature of alcohol policy.”
He said people who claim the state should step aside and consider alcohol use solely a matter of personal responsibility lose their credibility when the social cost of alcohol abuse, to drinkers and non-drinkers alike, is examined.
“When you consider that 80 percent of Americans don’t drink or have three or less drinks per week, 15 percent are moderate drinkers, and 5 percent abuse alcohol, you can see that most of our alcohol-related problems are caused by a minority, nevertheless, all of us still have to pay the high social costs which amount to $250 billion annually for our country, and $7 billion for North Carolina,” Creech said. “When those of us who don’t drink or who use alcohol responsibly don’t have to share in paying the tab on these social costs, then you can call it simply a matter of personal responsibility. But until then, the government should definitely be involved by preserving and promoting the best policies that work to minimize alcohol-related harms, and the steep social costs all of us have to pay, whether we drink or not.”
As part of the press conference, Rep. McElraft noted the following organizations support keeping the control system for the sale of liquor in place and believe that privatization of liquor will lead to many adverse effects: Christian Action League, NC Family Policy Council, NC Association of Chiefs of Police, NC Police Benevolent Association, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), NC Association of Local Health Directors, NC Public Health Association, National Association of Social Workers North Carolina Chapter, NC Society for Clinical Social Work, NC Substance Use Disorder Federation, Addiction Professionals of NC, NC Alcohol Policy Alliance, Alcohol/Drug Council of NC, Recovery Communities of North Carolina, NC Association of ABC Boards, and NC ABC Law Enforcement Officers Association.
The General Assembly’s Press Room was filled to capacity for today’s press conference with people representing groups from across the state, some traveling for as long as four hours to attend.
In addition to McElraft and Willingham, lawmakers who attended the event to show their support for maintaining the current ABC system included representatives Pat Hurley (R-Randolph), Jamie Boles (R-Moore), Mitchell Setzer (R-Catawba), and Sen. Bob Steinburg (R-Chowan).