The way Americans drink is changing. New census data suggest that a decades-long trend — local bars shutting down and liquor stores taking their place — showed no signs of abatement in 2014.
There are nearly 12,000 fewer bars in the United States today than there were back in 1998, according to the census. But over that same time frame, the number of liquor stores grew by more than 5,000.
That means more drinking at home and less drinking at the local watering hole, a change with implications for both civic life and public health.
The local bar is a classic "third place" in American life — after work and home, it's a place where people can go to relax, catch up on local news and above all, connect with friends and neighbors. Think of Moe's from "The Simpsons" or Cheers from, uh, "Cheers." Third places "are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy, but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the American social landscape,” sociologist Ray Oldenburg has written.
In the case of bars, the census data bear out that decline. A report last year from Nielsen outlined some of the factors behind this — the rise of "fast casual" restaurants that also serve alcohol is a big one. Many people don't just want to drink; they want a variety of food options beyond standard bar fare.
But people aren't just doing more drinking at restaurants. They're drinking more at home, too. If staying in really is the new going out, that booze is gonna have to come from somewhere. Enter the rise in liquor stores.
The census data show that as bars have declined, liquor stores have become more common. And these numbers likely understate the phenomena: After all, there are plenty of places now to buy booze for off-premises consumption: grocery stores, convenience stores and the like.
The beverage industry is trying to get ahead of these changes, figuring out how to make the most of what some are calling the "hometainment" trend. The shift seems to have little impact on the total amount of alcohol Americans are consuming — federal survey data show that the percentage of Americans who drink regularly has changed little over the past decade.
But from a public health standpoint, drinking at home is a different beast than drinking at the bar. There are some benefits to having more people drink in private — some studies have shown that drinking at the bar is more closely linked to violent crime than drinking at home. This makes sense: Get a bunch of people drunk and rowdy and then set them all loose on the streets at 2 a.m. and problems are bound to occur.
On the other hand, at-home drinking is linked to a whole host of problems of its own. Some studies have linked domestic violence to drinking at home. And research has shown that the density of liquor stores is linked to increased rates of suicide, particularly for men.
So it's a little too early to tell whether this trend is a net positive or negative from a public health standpoint. But it is becoming clear that when it comes to drinking, people really do want to go where everybody knows your name. For an increasing number of us, that place is home.
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