Massachusetts doesn’t need happy hours

Pricing alcoholic drinks low is bad for public health

MULTIPLE EFFORTS are under way to repeal the longstanding ban on happy hour in Massachusetts. If you’re not old enough to remember, happy hour ended here in 1984, when legislators, seeking to reduce drunk driving and its devastating consequences, passed a law banning bars and restaurants from offering free or reduced-price alcoholic beverages.

Previous efforts to repeal the ban failed. The current efforts should fail as well because we now have strong evidence that happy hours are bad for public health on multiple levels.

Those behind the call for repeal argue that times have changed. The penalties for driving under the influence (DUI) are harsher than they were 37 years ago, making it even riskier to drink and drive now than it was then. We also now have Uber and Lyft as alternatives to getting behind the wheel if we think we’ve overindulged. The designated driver – that stalwart friend who will sip seltzer all night and get everyone else home in one piece – has become part of our social culture.

Public opinion seems to agree, as 70 percent of respondents in a recent MassINC poll supported lifting the ban.

The happy hour ban is only one of several laws instituted to discourage drunk driving, so it’s difficult to gauge its specific impact. By many measures, Massachusetts can be proud of how it compares to other states. An analysis of 2019 state data shows 1.76 DUIs annually per 1,000 drivers in the Commonwealth, the fourth lowest rate in the nation. When it comes to alcohol-related driving fatalities, Massachusetts counts 1.7 deaths annually per 100,000 population, behind only New York (1.6) and New Jersey (1.4), and nearly half the national rate (3.2). Still, the portion of driving fatalities caused by impaired drivers is higher here than the national average, and in a 2018 CDC survey, 2.5 percent of Massachusetts residents self-reported getting behind the wheel after drinking too much in the previous 30 days.

The bigger argument for keeping the ban is that we now know a lot about the other unintended consequences of happy hour. Instead of looking solely at the prevention of alcohol-related car crashes, we should be considering the greater threat to public health.

Dr. Victor Puac-Polanco, a public health researcher and postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School, has studied the impact of “drink specials,” including happy hours, in the US and abroad. “Studying public policy presents enormous methodological challenges,” he told me via email. “Social and environmental factors unaccounted for in the analysis can subtract validity to any documented beneficial effects.” When it comes to studying the effects of free or reduced-price drink specials, the research varies in terms of the population studied, the type of drink special offered, and the methods used to collect data.

That’s why Dr. Puac-Polanco and colleagues reviewed 12 different studies to see how the results compared. Their conclusion? Eleven of the 12 studies showed a consistent link between drink specials and “increased alcohol consumption, heavy drinking, and alcohol intoxication.”

The researchers also found evidence of the association between drink specials and reports of driving under the influence, fighting, and unprotected sex. Furthermore, Dr. Puac-Polanco said, “Drink specials were associated with changes in attitudes, behaviors, and expectations regarding heavy alcohol consumption.”

That last point is important. For some people, happy hour-type promotions normalize intoxication and lead them to view overindulging in liquor as more acceptable than they might otherwise. That’s troublesome, because even if people do not become alcohol-dependent, alcohol use can lead to serious health issues. Over time, even moderate drinking can contribute to chronic problems such as high blood pressure, stroke, some cancers, or liver disease.

Although many of us aim to drink responsibly, it’s too easy in our society to disregard the fact that alcohol is a powerful drug – a drug that is the third-leading cause of preventable death in the US.

Massachusetts is already among the top 10 states with the highest levels of reported binge drinking. During the pandemic, access to alcohol has only gotten easier as establishments were permitted to sell “to go” cocktails and direct-to-consumer alcohol sales increased dramatically.

Perhaps the weakest argument for repealing the ban is that it will help restaurants and bars, which have struggled to survive during the pandemic. By offering discounted drinks, proponents say, establishments can attract more customers.

Yet restaurant and bar owners are not clamoring for the repeal, which would force a competition among them that won’t necessarily help their bottom line, as profit from bar revenue often outweighs that from food.

Meet the Author
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the public is best served when we consult experts and look to the greater good. Mitigating one effect of the pandemic – struggling bars and restaurants – should not be done at the cost of exacerbating an epidemic – that of alcohol abuse.

Patricia McTiernan is an Arlington-based writer with a background in health communication.