RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Alcohol plays a powerful role in U.S. social and cultural life -- and has since colonial times -- despite decades of research documenting it as more dangerous and physically destructive than heroin and cocaine, and a significant factor in violent crime.
In a book published this month, "Alcohol and Violence: The Nature of the Relationship and the Promise of Prevention" (Lexington Books), University of California, Riverside sociologist Robert Nash Parker says that amending existing laws or adopting additional regulations to limit the availability of alcohol -- a practice known as environmental prevention -- would reduce community violence. So why would policymakers and politicians balk at such efforts?
"We have an individualistic bias in our society and culture in America. So the environmental prevention argument is new to many people's ears, and they react with the individualistic bias that is so American," he says.
Parker and co-author Kevin J. McCaffree, a Ph.D. student at UC Riverside, cite numerous examples in the U.S. where changing the physical environment in which alcohol is acquired and consumed -- such as limiting the number of liquor stores in a neighborhood, banning the sale of 40-ounce containers of beer, or banning the sale of alcohol entirely -- reduced violent crime.
In isolated Barrow, Alaska, population 7,000, the adoption of laws that alternately banned or permitted the sale and possession of alcohol during a 33-month period produced a 90 percent drop in assaults in those months when alcohol was banned. When the bans were revoked, assaults returned to their previous -- or higher -- levels. The bans were advocated by an Eskimo community devastated by alcohol-related disease and violence.
The Union City, Calif., city council in 1994 adopted a major zoning policy change which resulted in the closing of many alcohol outlets in five mixed-use, residential retail neighborhoods. Significant drops in youth violence occurred.
Fenway Park, the Red Sox's baseball stadium in Boston, was notorious for beer-fueled fan fights. Team officials tried a number of individually oriented prevention strategies, such as limiting the number of beers each fan could buy. Nothing worked until the team stopped beer sales half-way through the game.
"Is prohibition the solution to violence?" the sociologists ask. "Not for the vast majority of communities. However, these results show that for isolated communities with a concern for public health and safety, prohibition may be a viable option."
Reducing the density of alcohol outlets -- particularly in impoverished communities, where they tend to proliferate -- is a proven method of reducing community violence, Parker and McCaffree assert, as do other co-authors of "Alcohol and Violence."
In other research cited in the book, Parker and co-authors Maria Luisa Alaniz, director of social science teacher education at San Jose State University, and Randi S. Cartmill, a researcher at the Center for Quality and Productivity Improvement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, suggest that intense alcohol advertising targeting specific ethnic groups -- Latinos in particular -- often is so sexual in nature that it has a significant impact on sexual crimes committed against girls and young women.
"The explicit sexual nature of some of the alcohol advertisements displayed in alcohol outlets provide an explicit link between alcohol and sexual availability," Parker explains. "In the first analysis of its kind we have found empirical evidence that the specific content of alcohol advertising in alcohol outlets is related to a type of violence in the surrounding neighborhoods that is consistent with the nature of the advertisements' sexualized content. The density of alcohol ads in which Latina models are displayed in demeaning, sexist and commodifying poses and situations was related to sexually violent victimization of Latina and non-Latina girls."
Most scholars agree that the consumption of alcohol in America is a common precursor to a variety of aggressive acts, including assault, homicide, rape and suicide.
"The cost to American society of alcohol impact is twice that of all other drugs combined," Parker notes, even when taking into account other social issues such as poverty and its attendant stressors. "We can reduce the harm from alcohol-related violence, without severely restricting the ability to consume alcohol for enjoyment and pleasure. The result will be a safer and better society for everyone, including the industry, the seller, the drinker and the non-drinker alike."
Most efforts to prevent violence in the United States have been largely unsuccessful, Parker says, citing decades of programs to reduce gang, drug and gun activity. Public policy has made a difference in car safety, however, he notes.
"We have significantly reduced the deaths related to auto crashes over the last 40 years. How have we done that? By making cars safer with features such as air bags, seat belts and better body construction. What we did was change the environment of the car, so that the same tendencies to drive too fast and phone/text/drink/eat/put on makeup/read while driving has resulted, despite these unsafe habits, in a dramatic decrease in highway deaths," Parker says.
"In this book we see the case of alcohol regulation, most of which is already on the books in every community in the nation, most of which is already enforced to some extent, and which can be tweaked and amended and supplemented by noncontroversial additions that involve enforcement efforts or additional regulations that can, as we show, reduce violence. Communities can do these things on their own, they are not expensive, and they actually reduce violence."
In addition to Parker, McCaffree, Alaniz and Cartmill, co-authors are Valery J. Callanan, associate professor of sociology at the University of Akron; Deborah M. Plechner, adjunct assistant professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Minnesota, Duluth; and Robert Saltz, senior scientist at the Prevention Research Center at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Berkeley, Calif.