The Athens-Clarke County Commission may end $1 drink specials in downtown bars by doubling the minimum drink price to $2. This policy is supported by the Athens-Clarke County Police Department and was recommended in the 2017 Downtown Health and Safety Study, which found that excessive drinking downtown was the cause of many health problems, including injuries, DUIs and exposure to human waste.
But will raising drink prices actually help curb binge drinking? Researchers around the world have looked closely at this question over the past few decades. While some studies disagree on the specifics, there is broad agreement that demand for alcohol is in fact sensitive to changes in price. A meta-analysis (or “study of studies”) from 2009 found that for every 10% increase in price, consumption dropped an average of 4.4%. This means that raising the price of alcohol can be an effective means of lowering the amount people drink. Based on this and other research, the Centers for Disease Control encourages raising the unit price of alcohol to curb excessive drinking.
Scotland became the first country to establish a minimum price for alcoholic beverages last year. It’s still a bit early to tell, but some reports show the policy has been successful at reducing consumption. Yet the measure probably won’t be popular with bar patrons in Athens. Will commissioners pass something similar here?
They already have. The commission first established a minimum drink price in 2007, which they set at $1. At their meeting on Oct. 15, the current commission seemed split on whether to double the minimum as recommended by ACCPD. Commissioner Patrick Davenport strongly opposed the measure on the grounds that it could hurt business and prevent lower income residents from enjoying a drink downtown.
On the other hand, the policy was unanimously supported by the commission’s Legislative Review Committee, so it seems more likely than not that it will pass at the commission’s next voting meeting on Nov. 5. There may be some changes to the measure before then, such as exempting beer to focus solely on liquor drinks.
The commission also had a lively debate on the “prosperity package.” Commissioners seemed far from any kind of agreement on this $4 million package that was approved as part of the county budget in June. Tackling our town’s dire poverty problem is a prime concern for the entire body, but the details of exactly how this will happen are murky.
The current debate is whether or not to spend about $1.5 million of the package to reinvigorate the “Neighborhood Leaders” program. It’s an initiative run by Family Connection/Communities in Schools that was started during the Obama administration but has languished in recent years due to funding cuts. At its peak, Family Connection employed 20 people living in lower income neighborhoods as organizers who would help connect their communities with services and resources for moving out of poverty. Athens’ success with this program was briefly touted by the Obama administration as part of the 2011 report “Creating Pathways to Opportunity.”
Executive Director Tim Johnson believes that “with time, a major investment in Neighborhood Leaders will affect the poverty rate, and almost immediately it will have positive impacts on individuals served and on the community as a whole.” Nevertheless, some commissioners remained skeptical of the program. Even if the proposal passes in November, it’s unclear if the commission will continue to fund Neighborhood Leaders beyond a one-year investment. The same is true of the entire prosperity package, which the commission seems likely to continue debating for some time.