By Will Jones
Nonessential businesses have been shut down nationwide but there are reports of long lines outside of liquor and cannabis stores because they’ve been deemed essential. I’m not here to argue that one way or another. I’m in my 30s, but while I was diagnosed with and was fighting the coronavirus, one of my friend’s friend died not from the pandemic, but from alcohol withdrawal. Liquor lobbyist voiced related concerns as a reason they should be deemed essential. However lobbyists are further pushing for access to federal relief funds despite the industry showing record profits during this time. The debate will continue as to whether these stores should be considered essential or not but one thing is certain: these stores are an essential component of community destabilization and impoverishment in communities of color and should not receive a dime of relief funds.
Walking out the door of my house, the first store I get to in any direction is a liquor store. If I go a little bit further, I’ll get to a convenience store – but it’ll be so plastered with advertisements for the lottery, liquor and tobacco that I can’t even see inside. This is the reality for millions in communities like mine across the country and it’s more than anecdotal.
A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found that low-income Black neighborhoods had up to eight times as many liquor stores as other communities and that “data reveal significant associations between the presence of liquor stores and the risk of health-related social problems in low-income neighborhoods.” This over-saturation of these outlets is particularly jarring juxtaposed against the food deserts that characterize many of our inner cities.
Disturbingly, studies show the primary source of revenue for the alcohol industry is people who don’t “use responsibly” as advertisements urge at the last second. A majority of their revenue comes from those who drink on average 10 drinks a day. Worse, disadvantaged communities often have a lack of access to quality (usually expensive) substance abuse programs. It should come as no surprise that Dr. Thomas LaVeist, lead author of the Johns Hopkins study stated that the stores “have been shown to be an important component of the social infrastructure that destabilizes communities.”
Research shows Big Tobacco has intentionally targeted these same communities with their products. Worse, they did it with products featuring even greater addiction and health risks associated with them like menthol cigarettes. An executive at R.J. Reynolds summarized their strategy saying, “‘We don’t smoke the shit. We just sell it. We reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the black, and the stupid.” Lawsuits and settlements with Big Tobacco have restricted many of the advertisements such as billboards and TV ads, yet huge Newport placards are still plastered over convenience store windows and the health costs still take the lives of hundreds of thousands each year.
Not content with profits reaped from their current products, alcohol and tobacco companies have recently invested billions of dollars into their latest, greatest addictive product: cannabis. Major alcohol brands such as Heineken, Molson Coors, Blue Moon, and Corona have already invested billions in the marijuana industry. Not to be outdone, Big Tobacco players such as Marlboro maker Altria invested nearly 2 billion in the industry with other companies looking to follow suit.
Despite paying lip service to social justice and equity, as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out, they’re “compounding the racial wealth gap” with over 80 percent of ownership in states like Colorado and Washington held by Whites, and other states like Massachusetts showing a mere 3.1 percent minority business ownership. Colorado now boasts more cannabis stores than Starbucks and McDonalds combined and like their liquor store counterparts, they are disproportionally located in communities of color.
Instead of considering giving liquor and cannabis businesses relief money, we should be having a conversation about what it means that we’ve allowed an industry built upon addiction-for-profit and exploiting disadvantaged communities to even make the case that they’re essential.
Any additional federal funds should be given directly to individuals in communities of color that emerging evidence shows are bearing the brunt of Covid-19 in the U.S – not towards industries that exploit them.
Will Jones is an MPA student at the GWU Trachtenberg School of Public Policy & Public Administration and Community Outreach Associate for Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
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