Zoning laws have become a powerful way to reduce the number of liquor stores in cities, but too few government officials use them, Johns Hopkins University public health researchers said in a new report.

Researchers from the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have created a guide to advise governments of the regulatory power they have to combat alcohol abuse.

They hope the report, published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, will bring more attention to the issue.

Studies have found that reducing the number of places where people can buy alcohol helps curb excessive drinking in communities. Los Angeles County researchers said that one additional liquor store was associated with 3.4 additional acts of violence a year. New Orleans researchers found that a 10 percent increase in liquor stores would correlate to a 2 percent increase in the homicide rate.

"So many health departments are unaware that they can influence alcohol-related problems through the planning and zoning process," said David Jernigan, the report's lead author, who is director of the Hopkins center.

Excessive alcohol use is the third-leading cause of preventable death in the United States and causes 80,000 deaths each year, Jernigan said.

He cited Baltimore as a good example of a place's using zoning to combat alcoholism.

About 100 stores throughout the city would be forced to stop selling alcohol under new rules being considered as part of the most extensive change in zoning regulations in 40 years.

Baltimore officials have said that they think reducing the concentration of liquor stores and taverns will improve health and safety.

The code would prohibit liquor stores from being located in the middle of a residential block and redefine what qualifies as a tavern. For example, more than 50 percent of a store's average daily alcohol receipts would need to come from sales consumed on the premises for it to qualify as a tavern.

Liquor store owners have said the city is discriminating against them and that their stores do not cause the city's health and crime problems. The proposed zoning has passed the planning commission and is now before the City Council.

"Baltimore is a leader on this issue," Jernigan said.

The Hopkins report outlined four ways states and localities can thin the density of liquor stores in their communities.

It said cities can limit the number of alcohol outlets per geographic area or limit the number of stores based on population. Zoning laws also could be used to establish a cap on the percentage of liquor stores based on the total number of businesses in an area. Municipalities could limit the places alcohol outlets locate as well as their operating hours. Land-use powers can be used to limit and deny certain places from selling alcohol.

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ankwalker

  • Text BUSINESS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun Business text alerts