Beyond tragedy: State needs to revisit its alcohol policy | Eastern North Carolina Now

By Rev. Mark Creech
Winston Salem Journal
March 31, 2024

There has been a recent increase in underage drunk driving incidents in North Carolina. Promising futures have been extinguished, families left reeling in anguish, and futures irreparably altered. These heartbreaking events serve as a poignant reminder of the profound consequences of underage drinking and reckless behavior behind the wheel.

On January 21st, the life of 20-year-old Molly Rotunda, a student with high potential at UNC-Chapel Hill, met an untimely death in a harrowing collision. Molly was in the back seat, while one of her classmates, also under the legal age for drinking, was driving recklessly after being served alcohol at a bar. Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated incident. In Macon County in October, a crash involving underage drinkers led to severe injuries and charges against a bartender. Similarly, in December, another 20-year-old lost his life in Cleveland County, following a homecoming party where adults facilitated underage youngsters with booze.

The prevalence of such incidents begs a critical question: could there be a systemic issue in play? While definitive proof may elude us, the uptick of these tragedies invites scrutiny of our state’s approach to alcohol policy over the past few years.

Omnibus legislation, a recurring fixture every year since 2019 in the North Carolina General Assembly, consolidates sundry alcohol-related provisions into one large measure with sweeping reforms. While presumably meant to expedite the legislative process, such alcohol initiatives obscure the full implications of each proposed policy change.

Alcohol is not a run-of-the-mill commodity; it carries inherent risks to public health and safety. Personal responsibility certainly plays a critical role, but it is seldom sufficient. Policies aimed at mitigating alcohol-related harms must therefore take center stage.

Yet, recently enacted Omnibus measures represent significant overhauls to the state’s alcohol policies. While proponents argue they were only modernizing an antiquated system, these bills are carelessly loosening regulations on alcohol accessibility that drive dangerous consumption rates.

Results of local alcohol elections have been reversed by Raleigh lawmakers in many places where voters rejected alcohol sales. Distilleries sell bottles of liquor on Sundays, something never allowed before. Two alcoholic beverages may be purchased at once during university/college sporting events. Alcohol is now sold at farmer’s markets, malls, street festivals, and local fundraisers. Bars are permitted on tour buses and ferries. Growlers, jugs for draft beer, have doubled in size. Social districts allow for open drinking on downtown sidewalks and carrying drinks between stores. These are just a few examples of the way beer, wine, and spirits are considerably more accessible because of Omnibus alcohol legislation.

Information provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Alcohol Consumption Patterns: A Systematic Review of Demographic and Sociocultural Influencing Factors, notes several studies that make it abundantly clear that “the more outlets made available, the easier the accessibility to alcohol…the more alcohol consumption among adults, young adults, and adolescents in general.”  Of course, it’s been a long-established conclusion that underage drinking leads to a wide range of serious alcohol-related problems, both immediate and long-term.

When alcohol policies are relaxed substantially, it signals increased acceptance and even promotes drinking. Despite laws addressing underage drinking, this normalization of drinking culture can wrongly influence young people’s perceptions and behaviors, raising the likelihood of underage drinking and risky behaviors like drunk driving. Expanding alcohol availability without great caution reduces concerns about its negative effects, undermining its classification as a legal but harmful recreational drug – a drug that causes more harm than all the illicit drugs combined. Establishments, parents, and adults tend to drop their guard and become less vigilant about preventing underage access to alcohol, creating conditions ripe for disaster.

The outcome? A distinct rise in underage individuals involved in serious vehicle crashes after consuming alcohol, as noted by Eric Swain, an ALE special agent in charge of the Greenville district, a college town, who told the Raleigh News and Observer:

“We have seen a sharp increase in underage individuals being involved in serious vehicle crashes after consuming alcoholic beverages.”

In the Spring, Omnibus alcohol legislation that didn’t pass last year could get a renewed push. The bill is comprised of over 30 extensive reforms of alcohol policy. Hastily passing substantial reforms, especially during the Spring’s Short Session, would be a disservice to the state.

Can we afford to ignore the potential correlation between the huge legislative changes, the normalization of drinking culture, greater accessibility to alcohol than ever before in the state, and a more lenient attitude about underage drinkers getting alcohol?

Don’t we owe it to those young people who recently lost their lives to look at this more closely?

Rev. Mark Creech is executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc.

This editorial was first published by the Winston-Salem Journal.

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