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Task Force Finds Commercial Liability an Effective Strategy to Reduce Alcohol-Related Problems

Submitted to the WPR

Holding alcohol retailers liable for injuries or damage done by their intoxicated customers can reduce motor vehicle deaths, homicides, injuries, and other alcohol-related problems, according to the Community Preventive Services Task Force. The independent, nonfederal, volunteer body of public health and prevention experts has determined that commercial host liability, otherwise known as dram shop liability, can be an effective intervention for reducing alcohol-related harms.

A dram shop is any retail establishment where alcohol is sold. Traditionally, it referred to a shop where spirits were sold by the dram, a small unit of liquid. Dram shop liability refers to laws that provide for the liability of retail establishments that sell alcohol for the injuries or harms caused by their intoxicated or underage customers. The Task Force had found that these types of laws have been shown to encourage more responsible beverage serving because managers and servers have an incentive to more closely manage their beverage service to intoxicated and underage customers, which can lead to penalties for retail establishments when this service leads to harms or damages.

As of January 2009, 44 states and the District of Columbia have dram shop laws, although the laws vary in their scope and in the evidence required for holding commercial hosts liable for their conduct. State-by-state information on dram shop laws pertaining to illegal service to underage minors is included in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Report to Congress on the Prevention and Reduction of Underage Drinking.

The Task Force findings are based on a systematic review of all available studies. The findings and systematic review were posted online today by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and will be published in the journal’s September 2011 issue.

The review says jurisdictions that seek to hold retail alcohol establishments liable for injuries or harms that result from their service to intoxicated customers or underage minors have reduced incidence of alcohol-related problems, including injuries and deaths. Evidence shows that dram shop liability can reduce motor vehicle deaths, homicide, and alcohol-related medical conditions, the article says. In six studies that examined the association, a median reduction in alcohol-related motor vehicle deaths of 6.4 percent was found in areas with increased dram shop liability. The article also says that more research is needed to determine the effectiveness of enhanced enforcement of laws that prohibit overservice, or the service of alcoholic beverages to intoxicated customers.

Excessive alcohol use causes more than 79,000 deaths in the United States each year and contributes to a wide range of health and social problems. For more information, see www.thecommunityguide.org.

The Community Preventive Services Task Force makes recommendations based on systematic reviews of scientific literature. The findings are published in the Guide to Community Preventive Services which provides evidence-based recommendations and findings about public health interventions and policies to improve health and promote safety and is intended to serve as a resource for people who want to know what works in public health. CDC provides ongoing scientific, administrative and technical support for the Task Force. ■

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