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Alcohol industry serves up political clout even during a pandemic | READER COMMENTARY

Maryland was already loosening restrictions on alcohol sales, including breweries that can now to serve up to 5,000 barrels a year in taprooms, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now bars and restaurants can even sell drinks curbside, a prospect unheard of just months ago.
Maryland was already loosening restrictions on alcohol sales, including breweries that can now to serve up to 5,000 barrels a year in taprooms, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now bars and restaurants can even sell drinks curbside, a prospect unheard of just months ago. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The Baltimore Sun got it right in its recent editorial, “If schools aren’t sure they can protect Marylanders amid a pandemic, why should we trust bars to?” (July 16). Perhaps it’s not about trust, but about power, money and influence.

The current crisis has provided an opportunity for a powerful industry to flex its muscle through lobbying dollars and influence over policymakers as reflected in liquor stores being deemed “essential.” Cocktails-to-go and curbside and home delivery are permitted, while monitoring alcohol outlets through routine inspections and compliance checks have been limited, and in some cases, discouraged. Recently, local health departments reached out to the state health department asking them to renew previous restrictions on bars and restaurants due to new spikes in coronavirus cases.

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We echo the call to let the data drive policy decisions. These recent increases in COVID-19 cases across the country have been tied, in part, to people returning to bars and parties. Furthermore, data released from a recent study of alcohol consumption during this pandemic by the Research Triangle Institute, International showed significant increases in average drinks per day, exceeding certain drinking guidelines, and binge drinking during the pandemic.

Governors throughout the country have loosened controls on alcohol sales as a mechanism to provide economic relief to alcohol outlets and some legislatures are following that lead. We can see the public health effects of higher liquor sales with the rise in COVID-19 cases and with the increase in underlying problems associated with alcohol consumption. To date, little attention is being spent on changes in consumption and the impact on mental health, hospital resources and enforcement. Expanding access and availability during this pandemic, even temporarily, has consequences. How do we guarantee our cities, counties and state will have resources to monitor these new expansions through alcohol inspectors and enforcement when such resources have been declining for years?

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We urge our leaders to lead. Follow the data. Seek out the experts. And shut the door to unfettered access by alcohol industry lobbyists who have been using this pandemic and the sympathy it has generated to grow their market share at the public’s expense. There should be no question that this increased access was not in line with best practices and should only be temporary.

We remain hopeful that Maryland will be a leader, as we have on many other public health issues. We have a window of opportunity now through proactive state leadership to move the new Alcohol and Tobacco Commission forward. Slated to be stood up this year, its funding was just eliminated through the recent budget cuts from Gov. Larry Hogan. This commission has the potential to bring progress and consistent public health updates to Maryland’s alcohol laws. We are eager for this effort to continue and urge our state leaders to not get sidetracked by the chaos of this pandemic. This commission could provide necessary guidance and expertise to help state and local leaders prioritize the public’s health and safety. Let’s not exchange one public health crisis for another.

Raimee Eck and Erica Hertz Weiss, Columbia

The writers are co-chairs of the advocacy committee of the Maryland Public Health Association.

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