Blue Laws vs. Sunday Alcohol Beverage Sales: The Scientific Evidence
The subject of Sunday alcohol sales is a controversial one and discussions about it tend to be heavily influenced by personal beliefs and emotions. 1 However, there is strong scientific research evidence about the effects of Sunday sales of packaged alcohol (that is, sold for consumption off the premises where the beverages are sold) on (a) traffic safety and (b) consumption levels.
In 1995, New Mexico lifted its Blue law prohibition against the purchase of packaged or off-premises alcoholic beverages on Sundays. The state permitted licensed package stores to sell alcohol between noon and midnight on Sundays.
Employees of a private research company were paid by an organization that "funds research that can help reduce the harm caused by the use of alcohol" to evaluate the consequences of the change in law. 2 They concluded that it "was associated with a rise in alcohol-related crash rates and fatalities." 3
That was a very surprising conclusion, given the following facts:
- The proportion of alcohol-related traffic fatalities on Sundays in New Mexico averaged 60% in the five years before the legalization of package store sales, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That proportion dropped to 47% in the five years following legalization, a decrease of over one-fifth. 4
- The number of alcohol-related Sunday crashes averaged 502 for several years before the law went into effect but dropped to 438 for several years afterward, according to the Division of Government Research at the University of New Mexico. 5
- There were 27 alcohol-related traffic fatalities on Sundays before the law went into effect, a number that dropped to 15 by the year 2000, according to the Division of Government Research.
The conclusion that Sunday alcohol sales led to higher alcohol-related traffic crashes and fatalities was widely cited in efforts to oppose repeal of alcohol Blue laws. 6 For example, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue distributed a press release and published an op-ed in which he used those findings to justify his opposition to lifting the prohibition. 7
However, serious inadequacies in the research were obvious. When researchers at the University of Georgia and Clemson University carefully analyzed government-collected data from 1990-2005, they found that there had been no increase in alcohol-related traffic accidents or in alcohol-related crash fatalities after the repeal of the Sunday prohibition. 8
Thus, the best and most recent scientific evidence is that Sunday package alcohol sales do not lead to any increase in alcohol-related traffic crashes or deaths.
In 1997, the province of Ontario, the largest single retailer of alcoholic beverages in the world, 9 abolished its prohibition against the off-premise purchase of alcohol on Sundays. The change represented a large overall increase in alcohol availability on that day of the week. 10
Researchers from the University of California at Irvine utilized this event to determine whether permitting off-premise Sunday alcohol sales led individuals to drink more alcohol on Sundays compared to other days of the week and compared to those in provinces that ban Sunday sales. To do so they analyzed data periodically collected by Canada's National Population Health Surveys. 11
The researchers reported that
the policy change is not associated with a large increase in overall drinking. The slight increase we observed may, in fact, correspond to a health benefit, because drinking was more evenly smoothed across the days of the week (note that we observed reduced drinking on Saturdays, one of the heaviest drinking days). 12
Thus, the best and most recent scientific evidence is that the Sunday sale of package alcohol does not create a health hazard.
Based on current scientific research evidence, it appears that Sunday package alcohol sales do not increase alcohol-related traffic crashes or fatalities nor do they pose a heath hazard. To the contrary, Sunday sales may reduce heavy drinking on Saturdays, thereby providing a health benefit.
- 1. Arguments are often religious or personal. Several weeks ago in Columbus, TN, two council members opposed Sunday sales. One, a minister, said that "it's totally against my belief" and another said his father was an alcoholic and that he's "seen what alcohol can do to a person." (Columbus officials eye Sunday alcohol. Commercial-Appeal, August 23, 2009) Earlier this year in North Little Rock City, AR, an alderman said he sees no reason why alcohol should be sold when "people should be in church." (Extension of Sunday alcohol sales causes confusion. Arkansas News Bureau, April 20, 2009)
- 2. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Grant Results. Car Crashes, Fatalities Rise Sharply With New Mexico Sunday Package Liquor Sales. Princeton, NJ: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, November, 2007.
- 3. McMillan, G.P. and Lapham, S. Effectiveness of bans and laws in reducing traffic deaths: Legalizing Sunday packaged alcohol sales and alcohol-related traffic crashes and crash fatalities in New Mexico. American Journal of Public Health, 2006, 96(11), 1944-1948; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Grant Results. Car Crashes, Fatalities Rise Sharply With New Mexico Sunday Package Liquor Sales. Princeton, NJ: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, November, 2007.
- 4. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
- 5. Division of Government Research, University of New Mexico
- 6. Join Together. Sunday Alcohol-Related Crashes Rise with "Blue Law" Repeal. October 4, 2006; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Grant Results. Car Crashes, Fatalities Rise Sharply With New Mexico Sunday Package Liquor Sales. Princeton, NJ: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, November, 2007.
- 7. Governor Sonny Perdue. The Tragic Cost of Sunday Alcohol Sales. Office of the Governor. March 27, 2008; Sonny Perdue. The tragic cost of Sunday alcohol sales. Banner-Herald. March 28, 2008.
- 8. Maloney, M.T. and Rudbeck, J.C. The outcome from legalizing Sunday packaged alcohol sales on traffic accidents in New Mexico. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 2009, 41(5), 1094-1098.
- 9. More specifically, the Ontario Liquor Control Board (OLCB) is the world's largest alcoholic beverage retailer. Alcohol Policy Network. Statistical Overview of Alcohol Use. 2008.
- 10. Carpenter, C.S. and Eisenberg, D. Effects of Sunday sales restrictions on overall and day-specific alcohol consumption: Evidence from Canada. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 2009, 70, 126-133.
- 11. Carpenter, C.S. and Eisenberg, D. Effects of Sunday sales restrictions on overall and day-specific alcohol consumption: Evidence from Canada. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 2009, 70, 126-133.
- 12. Carpenter, C.S. and Eisenberg, D. Effects of Sunday sales restrictions on overall and day-specific alcohol consumption: Evidence from Canada. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 2009, 70, 126-133.