Cocktails, Community Transformation Grants and the City

The Department of Health and Human Services has a new program: The Community Transformation Grant (CTG). To date $103 million in CTG funding has been awarded to 61 cities to, “support community-level efforts to reduce chronic diseases…by promoting healthy lifestyles” thereby reducing spending on health care.

According to The New York Post,“The city Health Department’s far-reaching Partnership for a Healthier New York City initiatives proposes to slash the number of establishments in the city that sell booze.” The proposal includes a few other ideas like limiting liquor advertising on subways, department stores and restaurants.

As a result of the news coverage, the Mayor’s office issued a statement hours later spiking the proposal. But since it was proposed, let’s give it some consideration.

Will limiting the sale of alcohol reduce alcoholism? Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Recent history should be a guide here.

Many pin the birth of the Temperance movement on America’s Puritan roots but history tells a more nuanced story. Alcohol was consumed regularly in Colonial America. Moderate consumption of drink was praised by Increase Mather in his sermon Wo to Drunkards.

Research by David Hanson of SUNY links the rise of the Temperance movement to rapid societal change in the early 19th century that altered American drinking habits from social to solitary. The move from a rural society to an urban and mobile society meant the disappearance of many of social mechanisms that encouraged moderate drinking and maintained,”the expectation that abuse of alcohol was unacceptable.”

Interestingly, Hanson cites the tavern as one such social control:

Central to the drinking culture of colonial life was the tavern … The role of the tavern in colonial America and the attitudes toward it were quite different from what they would become in the nineteenth century. The tavern was considered an integral part of community life, second only in importance to the meetinghouse, which served as the church, town hall, and courtroom. The laws of most colonies required towns to license suitable persons to sell wine and spirits for the convenience of travelers and town dwellers; failure to do so could result in a fine. Contrary to the modem practice of keeping alcohol outlets a certain distance from schools and churches, colonial taverns were often required to be located near the meetinghouse or church. In towns that lacked a meetinghouse or in those where the meetinghouse did not provide sufficient warmth in winter, “religious services and court sessions were held in the great room of the principal tavern; there, ecclesiastical affairs were managed, the town selectmen and county justices met to conduct the business of government, and the voters assembled for town meetings” (Popham, 1978, p. 271). Those who attended these gatherings naturally took advantage of the hospitality of the tavern, the expenses not infrequently being paid out of town funds. People also came to taverns to see plays and concerts, to attend lodge meetings, to participate in lotteries, to read newspapers, and to engage in political debate. Taverns were, in fact, more important as centers of social activity than as places in which to drink. Most drinking took place in the home or at communal gatherings. (Popham, 1978, pp. 267-277; Conroy, 1984) (Prendergast, 1987, p. 27)

Late 19th and early 20th century Temperance advocates believed that limiting access to alcohol would end the social and physical ills produced by alcoholism. But by outlawing the saloon and sale of alcohol with the passage of the 18th Amendment the only thing the movement did was to turn America into “a nation of scofflaws,” as well as amateur still-operators; sometimes with deadly results. As Hanson notes, driving drink underground didn’t decrease drinking, it increased it; it didn’t eliminate crime but created it. The saloon was replaced by the speakeasy.

The CTG program is new and it is part of the larger health care reform of the Obama administration. Other CTG projects critiqued as lacking in evidence: an e-cigarette campaign in Boston and a $15.8 million garden co-op and composting initiative in Pima, Arizona.