Banning Alcohol Sales During the COVID-19 Pandemic Is a Terrible Idea

For all the good prohibition might do to reduce domestic violence, it won't actually solve that problem and it will certainly cause others.


Alcohol sales should be banned while Americans are isolating at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, wrote Peter Bach, a physician who directs the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, in a Boston Globe op-ed last week.

"States should immediately order the closures of liquor stores," he writes. "They can reopen when home isolation is no longer needed."

Bach writes that he supports such a ban because domestic abusers who also abuse alcohol are more likely to engage in unchecked violence during a quarantine, when "the isolation frustrates an array of safeguards we have in place to identify domestic abuse in the first place." 

Indeed, reports suggest domestic violence cases have spiked across the country and around the world since the COVID-19 pandemic exploded. Other reports say calls to domestic abuse hotlines have done the same.

While terrible, the rise in domestic violence cases during this period is not terribly surprising.

"Domestic violence goes up whenever families spend more time together, such as the Christmas and summer vacations," The New York Times reported this week in a story on the rise of domestic violence cases during the COVID-19 pandemic.

So why crack down on alcohol sales? Bach cites data from Finland, Sweden, and South Dakota that he says show alcohol restrictions can "reduce the frequency of home violence."

Some leading domestic violence advocates don't agree.

"[B]ecause drugs and alcohol aren't the root issues of abuse (abuse is about power and control), achieving sobriety doesn't necessarily end the abuse," the National Domestic Violence Hotline—which can be reached at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)—detailed in 2015. "There are plenty of people who use drugs and alcohol and don't become abusive. Drugs and alcohol can affect a person's judgment and behavior, but using them doesn't excuse violence or abuse." That comports with earlier research carried out by the group.

If alcohol use were a root cause of domestic violence, then one would expect rates of domestic violence to be lowest in countries that ban alcohol sales. But that's not the case.

"One in every three women in Saudi Arabia is a victim of domestic violence," a study in the International Journal of Public Health detailed last year. Alcohol is prohibited in Saudi Arabia, which only criminalized domestic violence in 2013.

South Africa also has some of the world's highest rates of domestic violence. With that in mind, last month, South Africa's police minister, Bheki Cele, banned alcohol sales—along with tobacco sales—in the country for the duration of the nation's COVID-19 lockdown.

While rates of rape, murder, and other violent crimes have since dropped, domestic violence rates appear little changed. Reports suggest "gender-based violence complaints remained high" in the country despite the alcohol ban. (South Africa's Gender-Based Violence Command Centre responds to domestic violence complaints.)

Here in the U.S., most states haven't heeded Bach's advice to ban booze sales. In fact, many have relaxed some longstanding restrictions on alcohol sales during the pandemic by, for example, allowing restaurants to sell to-go cocktails. Alcohol sales—most now for home consumption—have also grown nationwide during the pandemic.

Still, not every state has moved to facilitate booze sales. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) deemed the state-run Fine Wine & Good Spirits "non-essential" and ordered the stores to close indefinitely last month. But state residents, anticipating the closure, went on a record-setting booze-buying binge before the ban took effect.

Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores reopened for online sales earlier this month after consumer backlash. But the online store promptly crashed due to high demand and seems not to have recovered.

That's forced Pennsylvania drinkers to put themselves and others at risk, shirking shelter-in-place and social-distancing guidelines to buy booze by driving to other states—where they're most unwelcome, due at least in part to the fact Pennsylvania has the seventh-most coronavirus cases in the country. In Delaware, police have taken to turning back Pennsylvania drivers who travel to the First State to buy booze. One West Virginia county also banned sales to Pennsylvania drinkers.

While the aforementioned booze bans show they eliminate neither alcohol sales nor domestic violence, other critics have suggested Bach's proposal has serious public-health shortcomings. Alex Gertner, an M.D./Ph.D. student at UNC-Chapel Hill, tweeted out a thoughtful thread in response to Bach's Globe op-ed. Gertner argues the ban would be counterproductive and dangerous for several reasons, including that it could harm or kill alcohol abusers—whether or not they are also perpetrating domestic violence.

For his part, Bach acknowledges that around 5 percent of alcohol abusers who quit alcohol cold-turkey can face life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. And he admits that banning alcohol sales would further wound the already battered economy. 

"Even with these possible downsides," Bach argues, "the benefits to domestic violence victims and potential victims whom we have few other ways of helping through this crisis should be our priority."

Gertner, for his part, proposes several ways to help domestic violence victims right now—none of which ban alcohol.

"Fortunately there are plenty of policy options to decrease domestic violence without these risks and downsides," Gertner tweeted. "We can and should also expand programs that address violence directly. Let's expand shelter capacity, ensure shelters can maintain physical distancing, develop innovative ways for victims to report abuse from home, and check in with known victims and known perpetrators."

I couldn't agree more with those suggestions. I'm sure there are other good ones out there, too.

According to government data, more than half of Americans have consumed alcohol within the past month. Responsible drinkers should continue to be free to enjoy a tipple whenever they'd like. People who commit violent crimes against family members (or others) should continue to be prosecuted for those crimes. If we need to devote more resources to combating domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, then let's do exactly that. But let's leave Prohibition—even a temporary one—out of the equation.