In a recent op-ed piece for the UK’s Independent, Ian Hamilton suggests that closing liquor stores and wine shops during the coronavirus pandemic “would yield more for the nation’s health than almost any other policy intervention.”
Hamilton, a lecturer in mental health sciences at the University of York, wrote his op-ed in reaction to alcohol retailers being classified as “essential businesses,” meaning that they are specifically allowed to remain open while other businesses have been ordered to close. He’s not the only writer at the Independent who has concerns about alcohol sales during the Covid-19 crisis, as you can read here.
Obviously, as a wine merchant, I’ve got a dog in this fight, even though I’m not in the UK. I’ve heard some social media rumblings here about whether alcohol retailers should be classified as essential here in the US, although nothing in the mainstream press. Hamilton argues that the main reason alcohol businesses are still open during the virus outbreak in the UK is because the alcohol lobby is too strong for politicians to overcome.
I’ve certainly felt the sting of state-based prohibitions on shipping wine here in the US thanks to state alcohol lobbies. But it’s naïve to think that’s the whole story. After all, we’ve tried the experiment before with prohibition. The UK never had government-enforced prohibition the way we did here in the US. If the UK considers imposing even a temporary form of prohibition by closing shops that sell alcohol, it won’t just be the alcohol lobby opposing it.
Prohibition provides an interesting analog to today’s coronavirus crisis in two ways. Part of the success of the temperance movement that helped create the national prohibition law was to help curb domestic violence. This is a worthwhile goal and is also one point cited by some UK mental health groups advocating eliminating alcohol sales today. The other point is that the virus has led to massive unemployment, which mirrors one of the impacts of the Great Depression. Although prohibition was enacted a decade before the Great Depression began, it showed that people with enough money had virtually unimpeded access to alcohol during the roaring 20s. By October 1929, when US unemployment skyrocketed, there was substantial illegal infrastructure to make and sell alcohol – so much so that alcohol consumption increased despite prohibition. And state and local governments didn’t get any tax money from the illegal sales. Ultimately, prohibition failed because people found ways to get alcohol and state governments lost essential revenue during the depression.
I’m not trying to be flip about mental health. I’ve seen a lot of Twitter postings about how self-isolation is really messing with people. That’s hardly a scientific survey, but it’s noticeable. So it’s not out of bounds to consider that people who are feeling lonely and vulnerable might drink more than they otherwise would. That could be a problem, and it’s important to consider it.
But it’s early days for self-isolation and I haven’t found any real data on this. I’ve seen plenty of what I assume are joking references to breakfast cocktails, they appear to be for entertainment. Even Ina Garten upped the typical cocktail portion size in a viral video this week. But I wonder if it’s also possible that people reaching out on Twitter and other social media are getting some comfort and relief from those activities rather than alcohol. Social media feedback might not replace in-person interactions, but it’s something people are definitely using. (And no, I don’t think Ina drank that industrial-sized Cosmopolitan herself, at least not in one sitting.)
I also get that it’s irritating that alcohol retailers get labeled as “essential,” when alcohol has upended so many lives. I’d be happy for First Vine to shed its “essential” classification in favor of one that’s less imperative. Perhaps there could be a less dramatic adjective applied to it, rather than what appears to be the current all-or-nothing shorthand.
Finally, it’s important to remind people that drinking in moderation is key, and what moderate drinking actually means. Reflecting on when and how much we drink is a good idea, and if we’re more mindful we may decide that we don’t need to drink as much alcohol. That’s all to the good, I think. Accordingly, I have put a link on my sales homepage with recommended guidelines. Beyond reflecting on our alcohol consumption, we can also all help one another by keeping in touch with our families and friends as best we can. Last week I saw a cartoon blaming the videoconferencing app Zoom for the coronavirus crisis. (For the record, I don’t believe that, even though it’s funny.) But hey, if it helps people connect and eases some of the anxiety of self-isolation, I’ll happily raise an appropriately-sized glass to them as part of my weekly moderate drinking schedule.