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Policy

One weird trick that's proven to help prevent violence in your neighborhood

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Virginia Commonwealth University's  Clark-Hill Institute for Positive Youth Development has a lot of research projects aimed at helping young people succeed.

One of those projects is a community surveillance system that tracks ambulance calls, emergency room visits, and other data to track levels of violence across neighborhoods in Richmond, Virginia.

In 2003, researchers from the Institute reported to local community members on a not-so-surprising correlation they'd discovered: Rates of violence were higher near convenience stores that sold "inexpensive, single-serve alcoholic beverages."

A paper published by Institute researchers last year described what happened next: 

Alarmed by these data, residents held several community forums to discuss issues surrounding the problems associated with these “Mom and Pop” (i.e., nonchain, locally owned) convenience stores. Community members recognized that the availability of these beverages significantly contributed to undesirable activities such as violence, loitering, littering, and overall neighborhood decay. They collaborated with the local civic leagues to push for restrictions on any new Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) licenses and to prevent renewal of existing licenses that allowed convenience grocery stores in their communities to sell these beverages. More specifically, they requested that the Virginia ABC board issue restricted licenses to allow only the sale of 6 packs, 12 packs, or cases of beer and not the inexpensive and popular 40- or 22-oz bottles.

They succeeded – for a little while, at least.

The paper reports that the state issued new restricted alcohol licenses to at least 18 convenience stores in the city. But the restrictions only lasted six months, according to the researchers. Store owners pushed back against the restrictions, and ultimately won. 

The thing is, while the restrictions were in place, they totally worked. 

Researchers tracked violence near convenience stores by looking at monthly data of ambulance pickups.

They narrowed the data down to only see pickups related to injuries sustained from intentionally violent acts, and only pickups that involved people ages 15-24 (an age group that is disproportionately affected by violence across the country). 

In a matter of only a few months and with zero cost, the community had eliminated almost all serious, violent injuries to young people – simply by altering local liquor laws.

During the six months the alcohol sales restrictions were in place, the number of ambulance pickups for that age group dropped dramatically – from a rate of about 20 pickups per 1,000 people, to a rate of zero.

After the restrictions were lifted, ambulance calls went up again. 

In a matter of only a few months and with zero cost, the community had eliminated almost all serious, violent injuries to young people – simply by altering local liquor laws.

And Richmond isn't the only place we can look to for evidence of how liquor sales affect community violence. 

In 2009, the American Journal of Preventative Medicine published a massive review of more than 80 scientific papers that looked at how alcohol regulations affect communities.

The results, once again, are not surprising. But they are surprisingly consistent. Where there are more stores that sell alcohol, people will drink more alcohol. And where people drink more alcohol, there is almost always more violence. 

Another study, this one published in 2011, surveyed stores in San Bernardino, California, and actually measured the amount of refrigerated shelf space devoted to single-serving alcoholic drinks in each store.

This study found, once again, that where there were more stores that sold alcohol, there was more violence. And, where there was more shelf space devoted to already-chilled, single-serving drinks (such as 40s and tall boys), there was even more violence. 

At the University of Minnesota, there's an entire research team devoted to studying how alcohol sales affect communities.

The Alcohol Epidemiology Program has more research than you can possibly read in a day, but it also offers guides to alcohol-related ordinances, along with the pros and cons of each approach. 

And there are some cons to restricting certain types of liquor sales, particularly because some approaches will disproportionately affect consumers who are poor and, often, black.

Also, efforts that are targeted in certain neighborhoods, often called Alcohol Impact Areas, can be unpopular with business owners who feel they're being put at a competitive disadvantage compared to stores in other parts of the city.

This is the very problem that led to the restrictions being lifted in Richmond. 

The other issue is that while alcohol sales restrictions are proven to reduce both alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems in a neighborhood, these restrictions don't really address the core of the problem.

Single-serving alcohol containers – particularly those with high alcohol content, such as malt liquor – are a problem in poor neighborhoods precisely because they're cheap.

No one notifies the police when a middle-class consumer buys a six-pack of high-gravity craft ale to consume at his house. But if you see a man in a poor neighborhood, shuffling home with a tall boy in his hand, you might.

The statistics on violent crime support the idea of restricting sales to one type of alcohol consumer and not the other, but a deeper analysis suggests that the alcohol itself isn't the main problem.

The problem is poverty. Alcohol just makes it worse. 

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