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Mass. alcohol policies lax in comparison to other states, study suggests

In a research project conducted at Boston Medical Center and the Boston University School of Public Health, Massachusetts rated highly on effective alcohol policies that reduce excessive drinking. PHOTO BY EMILY ZABOSKI/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF
In a research project conducted at Boston Medical Center and the Boston University School of Public Health, Massachusetts ranked low on effective alcohol policies that reduce excessive drinking. PHOTO BY EMILY ZABOSKI/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

In response to a column published in the Boston Globe Saturday criticizing Massachusetts’ prohibition of happy hour, Boston Medical Center Research Coordinator Jason Blanchette pointed to a recent BMC study, which found Massachusetts’ alcohol policies to be lenient relative to the rest of the country.

“Nationwide, alcohol is one of the leading contributors to death and injuries and disease,” Blanchette said. “In Massachusetts, it’s no different. If anything, we’re doing worse.”

In the study, Blanchette and his team aggregated several alcohol-related policies of all 50 states into a single score, enabling them to characterize the strength of each state’s effectiveness in reducing excess drinking and driving under the influence. The scores were based on 29 policies — each rated on their efficacy by a panel of nationally recognized alcohol policy experts.

“Massachusetts tends to consistently rank in the bottom 10 states,” said principal investigator Tim Naimi, a physician and alcohol policy researcher at the BMC. “People think of Massachusetts as a high state in terms of regulation and taxation, but when it comes to alcohol, it’s been a bit of a blind spot for our state from a public health perspective.”

Naimi said Massachusetts’ tax on alcoholic beverages — about one cent per 12-ounce beer — majorly contributed to the states low ranking on the study’s scale.

“Essentially what we’re doing is subsidizing the production and consumption of alcohol,” Naimi said. “Other than clothes and food in Massachusetts, we’re taxing alcohol much less compared to all other consumer items. Essentially, it amounts to a subsidy whereby we are actually incentivizing people to drink more alcohol.”

Naimi said low tax rates contribute to high rates of fatal motor vehicle accidents, sexual assaults and liver disease, among other public health concerns.

“Everyone is affected by excessive drinking, and, quite frankly, alcohol taxes are a great source of revenue,” Naimi said. “Our notoriously high income and property taxes in the state are not matched by our really pathetically low alcohol taxes. Maybe alcohol taxes being higher could offset some of our other high tax rates.”

Massachusetts’ Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, which employs 15 investigators, aims to control the sale, consumption and manufacturing of alcoholic beverages.

“We have a very low number of enforcement agents in our Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, given the number of licensed establishments that they have to keep track of,” Blanchette said.

Blanchette said a strong ABCC was rated highly effective in preventing excessive drinking.

Though several students said they were in favor of escalating policies to counter excessive drinking, some said Massachusetts’ alcohol policies were satisfactory as they stand.

“You worry about general public safety,” said Christine Bentlyewski, a School of Education sophomore. “I wouldn’t have control over it if some drunk driver was out there … If the low sales tax is making them more able to be drunk and driving, then that’s my major concern.”

David Weinberg, College of Arts and Sciences senior, said he was not concerned with Massachusetts’ tax on alcoholic beverages.

“I’ve lived in Japan for a while, and the taxes over there on beer are horrendously high,” he said. “It doesn’t really make much of a difference in terms of fatalities due to accidents while driving [drunk].”

Weinberg said he was surprised by Massachusetts’ ranking on the Naimi and Blanchette’s scale.

“It’s frustrating that you can’t get a beer after two in the morning,” Weinberg said. “They have the close at 2 a.m. rule in place and they also have the no-happy hour rule in place. Other than raising the tax on beer, what much else can you do?”

Valentina Toll, a College of Engineering sophomore, said bars and restaurants should encourage individuals to avoid making irresponsible decisions while under the influence of alcohol.

“I like those programs for the designated driver where if you don’t drink during the night, you get free non-alcoholic drinks,” she said. “Motivating people to have someone in charge of staying sober and making sure everybody gets home safely, that’d be good.”

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