New Ohio laws in the past decade have widened access to alcohol, a move that’s allowed the beer, wine and liquor industry to flourish. But, leaders in addiction prevention say the rapid expansion may threaten public health.
A Dayton Daily News investigation found Ohio’s governor has signed into law at least 12 bills that further relaxed alcohol restrictions statewide since 2012. They included everything from allowing microdistilleries to offer visitors a taste of their products and sell limited quantities for carryout to lowering the permit fees for craft breweries and allowing open containers of alcohol at outdoor events.
Liquor sales in Ohio have jumped more than $500 million in the past decade, and since 2012, the number of craft brewers in the state have increased more than 400 percent.
“We have some great breweries right here in our own backyard that produce tremendous products, and if they want to try to grow their business through allowing people to sample their products, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be able to do that,” said Chris Kershner, vice president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce.
Recent laws have also sought to make Ohio a friendlier market to more niche alcohol products. A 2017 law allows businesses to create and sell alcoholic ice cream while a 2015 law permits the sale of liquors at farmers markets, and a 2016 policy established an “Ohio Farm Winery Permit” that allows people to sell their products directly to consumers.
Alterations to state laws have been sensible and followed the demands of local businesses, said Jacob Evans, counsel for legislative affairs of the Wholesale Beer and Wine Association of Ohio.
But some health advocates say Ohio’s alcohol laws “are not aligned with evidence.” Health Policy Institute of Ohio officials said the state has “relatively low” taxes on alcohol and state leaders should consider increasing them to combat excessive drinking.
“There are certainly many powerful stakeholder groups that benefit from increased accessibility to alcohol,” said Amy Bush Stevens, vice president of prevention at HPIO. “So that’s definitely a challenge.”
Recent changes are an indication, Kershner said, that “cultural norms around alcohol usage have changed over time.” But, the increasing availability of alcohol and its use in more products and food poses a danger, said Cindy Clouner, managing director of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse and Prevention at Ohio State University.
“I think what that does is it really normalizes alcohol being around us and also increases the risk people are drinking alcohol in high-risk ways,” Clouner said. “Perception is reality and the perception is always that people are consuming higher rates of alcohol.”
A ‘layer of complexity’
As Ohio’s alcohol laws have changed, binge drinking rates have creeped higher and increased access may be to blame, said Clouner.
Binge drinking is commonly defined as four drinks for a woman and five for a man within a two-hour period, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. A survey from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, shows the rate of excessive drinking has increased in nearly every area county.
Preble County saw the highest rise in binge drinking, increasing by 7 percent since 2011, the earliest year for which data is available from the institute.
Greene, Champaign, Butler and Warren counties have the highest rate in the area with 19 percent of residents reporting they binge drink. Montgomery County’s rate of binge drinking is 16 percent, according to survey data from the institute.
“It definitely adds a different layer of complexity,” Clouner said. “I think it’s important for communities to really be mindful about the messages they’re sending about alcohol consumption.”
The overall percentage of Ohioans who binge drink increased from 17 percent in 2011 to 19 percent as of this year, according to the survey
OVI incidents continue to be a “serious concern” for law enforcement, said Maj. Matt Haines of the Montgomery County Sherriff’s Office.
Ohio has seen a recent rise in the number of people who have died in car crashes where drivers were operating a vehicle under the influence, according to data from the Ohio State Highway Patrol. The number of OVI-related traffic deaths in Ohio increased nearly 15 percent from 2014 to 2018, growing from 350 to 402, respectively, according to the state patrol.
There’s hope, Haines said, that ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft can help reduce OVI accidents even if drinking is increasing.
“No matter what you choose to do other than drive after you’ve been drinking, if it is using a ride-share service, getting a taxi, having a friend or designated driver, it’s always infinitely safer than it would be if you made a bad decision and were out drinking and driving,” Haines said.
The alcohol industry’s success has surged in Ohio as the state has updated its laws.
The sale of hard liquor skyrocketed in the last decade, as sales increased by more than half-a-billion dollars from $697 million in 2008 to $1.2 billion last year, according to the Ohio Department of Commerce. JobsOhio, the state’s private nonprofit economic development agency, is funded through Ohio liquor operation profits.
Ohio’s craft beer industry has also expanded dramatically, growing from 45 craft breweries in 2011 to around 250 as of 2018.
“The Department of Liquor Control reevaluated the permit fees in 2012. For a place like Warped Wing today — which includes production, brewery, retail tasting room and self-distribution — you were looking north of $8,000 a year for an annual permit. That permit went down closer to $1,000,” said one of its founders Nick Bowman.
“As you can imagine, for some of the smaller breweries, start-up breweries, $8,000 is a significant portion of your startup costs. When it moved to $1,000, you saw a lot of people jumping into the business because the barriers to entry were lower.”
The growth reflects a “culture change happening around how we interact with alcohol,” said Carolyn DesJardin, executive director of the Oregon District Business Association. The Oregon District is downtown Dayton’s main entertainment and restaurant destination.
“We see the changes in alcohol restrictions as creating opportunities,” DesJardin said. “Not to mention, the increase in downtown foot traffic for our businesses and the opportunity to incorporate sensible consumption in future Oregon District events. There’s a cosmopolitan-like characteristic cities like Dayton can tap into when we prove to manage these changes responsibly.”
One recent change impacting local businesses was the passage of the “brunch bill,” a ballot measure that allowed downtown businesses to start serving alcohol at 10 a.m. Sundays instead of 11 a.m. The previous Sunday liquor restrictions were a “burden” on customers and businesses, Kershner said.
Kershner applauded newer state laws such as one that allows for “Designated Outdoor Refreshment Areas” where people can carry open drinks outside and an exemption for “pedal pubs,” a nickname for quadricyles on which people travel and drink at the same time.
Warped Wing Brewing Company — Dayton’s largest brewery — is often a frequent stop for pedal pubs, Bowman said.
“The freedom of allowing them to have open containers on the pedal wagon is one of the things that really drives the popularity of those pedal bikes, and in turn, ourselves—breweries and bars in the Oregon District—get to benefit from those freedoms and that popularity,” Bowman said. “And I think it introduces more customers to our businesses.”
‘A difficult balance’
Although there are more products and vendors selling alcohol, business owners said they have a handle on them.
The impact of changes to statewide policies is top of mind, said Evans. If a major public health issue were to develop as the result of a policy change, it would be bad for the businesses the association serves, Evans said.
“That’s a difficult balance. We take a look at that with all of these changes we make to Ohio law,” Evans said. “I think you won’t see great sweeping change because of the respect for public health.”
Unless there is a new business or product, there will likely only be minor “tweaks” to current law going forward, Evans said.
One policy shift in recent years was the elimination of alcohol limits in beers brewed in the Buckeye State.
Until a 2016 bill was signed into law, the alcohol content of beer made in Ohio was 12 percent. Now, there is no limit to the amount alcohol brewers can include.
The variation in the amount of alcohol in beer presents a big issue as consumers don’t always realize how strong a brew is, Clouner said.
The 2016 law also established specific labeling requirements for beers that are more than 12 percent alcohol. Although Warped Wing has not taken advantage of the lack of an alcohol limit for beer, Bowman said it’s up to brewers and bartenders to keep customers informed.
“(They should) make sure that their bartenders, beer-tenders behind the bar are trained…so they can recognize when people may have been over-served,” Bowman said. “Every brewery should feel responsibility to their consumers.”
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