Concern over Ohio entertainment districts fueling binge-drinking

About 20 percent of Ohioans age 21 drink to intoxication, study shows

Ohio’s decision last month to allow open containers in designated drinking areas could provide an economic shot in the arm for local entertainment districts, but it also raises concerns about the unintended consequences of booze-infused economic growth, including the prevalence of binge-drinking.

About 20 percent of Ohioans age 21 and over engage in binge drinking, or drinking to intoxication in a short period of time, according to a report from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which surveyed drinking behaviors in each state and county from 2002 to 2012.

Ohio’s rate is about two percentage points higher than the national rate and ranks the Buckeye State among the bottom half of all 50 states for binge-drinking, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as males having five or more drinks and females having four or more drinks in less than two hours.

Rolling back outdoor drinking restrictions won’t necessarily encourage binge-drinking on its own.

But the social dynamic among revelers strolling along public streets and sidewalks with drinks in their hands is likely to promote excessive drinking and alcohol-related problems, including drunk-driving injuries and deaths, said Phyllis Cole, director of Wright State University’s Weekend Intervention Program for people convicted of drunk-driving offenses.

“The change that they’re making with the law is definitely going to have some impact on the number of people who are out there drinking more liberally” Cole said. “It’s an issue of being told it’s acceptable; that there’s nothing wrong with walking around drinking alcohol. It encourages individuals, in some ways, to go beyond perhaps what they might have if they were sitting in a bar or restaurant having a few drinks.”

So far, no open container zones have been established in Ohio, although Gov. John Kasich signed a bill last month with an emergency clause allowing the districts to be created immediately.

Ohio became the seventh state to permit public drinking in designated entertainment districts. Cities and towns with populations between 35,000 and 50,000 will be allowed to create one open container district; those with 50,000 or more residents can create two outdoor drinking zones. The districts must include at least four businesses with alcohol permits and can be no more than a half-mile square.

Such areas as the Oregon District in downtown Dayton, Columbus’ Arena District and The Banks in Cincinnati are prime candidates, and Dayton officials plan to discuss the possibility of establishing outdoor drinking districts later this month.

Phil Parker, president and CEO of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, said some local bar and restaurant operators have told him they would welcome the new business the districts might bring but still have major concerns.

“Business owners are truly concerned about liability,” Parker said. “If someone is drinking in their establishment and steps out onto the sidewalk with an open container and continues to drink, is that bar or restaurant going to be under more scrutiny and have even more liability than they did before? They’re just not sure if that outweighs the fact that they might serve more people.”

In addition to the potential legal ramifications for business owners, studies indicate the overall economic benefit of open-air drinking districts often falls short of the cost of excessive alcohol consumption.

According to the CDC, binge drinking cost federal, state, and local governments about 62 cents per drink in 2006, related to property damage, motor vehicle crashes and alcohol-related crime, among other factors. Meanwhile, federal and state income from taxes on alcohol totaled only about 12 cents per drink.

Concerns about entertainment districts promoting excessive drinking are largely overblown because laws prohibiting public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and underage drinking will be strictly enforced, according to Gov. Kasich’s spokesman, Rob Nichols.

“Ohio has robust laws governing alcohol, and we’re quite confident that this is not going to be a problem,” Nichols said.

Despite such laws, binge-drinking in Ohio jumped about 9 percent over the 10-year period from 2002 to 2012, and was about 50 percent faster than the increase for the nation as a whole, according to the IHME report published in last month’s American Journal of Public Health.

In the region, the growth in the number of binge drinkers ranged from an increase of 7.3 percent in Champaign County to 22.1 percent in Greene County — home to several college campuses, which are known for binge drinking. The binge-drinking rate among college students has hovered around 40 percent for most of the past twenty years, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

But while college students commonly binge drink, 70 percent of binge-drinking episodes involve adults age 26 years and older with household incomes of $75,000 or more, according to the CDC.

That’s the demographic Ohio’s drinking districts would be poised to attract because alcohol consumption is price sensitive, and the districts wouldn’t allow people to bring their own liquor.

“You have to have money to be out there socializing and enjoying those venues,” Cole said. “Many of the people we see are in that 25- to 40-year-old age group who just really used some bad judgment on a particular occasion but aren’t necessarily alcohol dependent.

“Most people are going to try to be responsible, even with the change in the law,” she said. “But there is always a small “casualty group” anytime open drinking is legalized and made acceptable. It might be good for business and good for the economy, but, unfortunately, there is going to be a trade-off.”

William Roberts, supervisor at the Center for Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Services for Montgomery County, encouraged cities and towns designating outdoor drinking districts to actively engage in raising awareness about alcohol’s effects and take action to help improve the health profile of their communities.

“There may be some risk to the community, but hopefully, along with the entertainment districts, (supporters) will continue to look a policies that will reinforce responsible drinking and campaigns to remind people of the dangers of drinking and driving,” Roberts said.

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