Worst Practices: New Report Sheds Light on CA Legislature's Reckless Deregulating

a burning violin propped up within a luxurious barIt's not clear if violinists are well represented in Sacramento, but someone is certainly fiddling while the alcohol burns. Coming out of COVID-19 (if indeed we have), the alcohol-related death rate in the state has spiraled.  As recently as 2015, around 11,000 Californians died from alcohol-involved causes yearly.  In 2021, California Department of Public Health officials estimated the death toll as high as 19,335 annually. This raised an urgent question: has California's lawmaking exacerbated this trend, or helped keep it from being higher yet?

Alcohol Justice's new report, Circling the Barrel: the California 10-Year Review of Alcohol Policy, formally launched at the 2023 Global Alcohol Policy Conference, seeks to answer this question. 

To acquire some insight in the priorities and decisionmaking of the California legislature, AJ researchers analyzed every piece of alcohol-related legislation over a 10 year period from 2013 to 2022. What they found will not surprise you; the legislature probably made alcohol harm worse, passing over twice as many harm-promoting bills than harm-preventing ones. The level of dogged determination to tear down protective alcohol policies, however, was extremely concerning; the sheer number of alcohol-related bills increased every session over the decade, and 44% passed, compared to an average 36% passage rate for all introduced bills.

To determine how proposed and/or passed bills would create or prevent harm, the researchers looked at these bills through a very specific lens. The World Health Organization compiles what they call the SAFER Technical Package, detailing five broad policy domains to reduce alcohol-related harms. The five domains are: price controls and taxes, marketing and advertising restrictions, restrictions on time and place of availability, access to screening and treatment, and prevention of intoxicated driving. Bills that increased harm were coded as "disaligned," while protective ones were considered "aligned." Every year, far more disaligned bills became law than aligned. Disaligned bills were most likely to affect availability, be it creating more licenses, extending last calls, or allowing alcohol to be distributed in new venues such as salons and barbershops. Nearly 1 in 4 of all alcohol-related bills, 90 total, fell in this category. Meanwhile, the protective bills were most likely to increase access to treatment--a valuable avenue for prevention, but by defintion too far downstream to prevent any harm.

"I hope this serves as a wakeup call," said lead author Carson Benowitz-Fredericks. "If we care about lives changed or lost from alcohol, we need to really let lawmakers know. We need them to know when their proposals are dangerous, and we need to know we rely on them to create lasting protections in the face of worsening harm."

The report is available for download on the Alcohol Justice webpage. Hard copies are available upon request.

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