Alcohol more available in poor, black areas

Cities researched include Boston

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tania deLuzuriaga
Globe Staff / April 3, 2008

A University of Minnesota study of 10 cities, including Boston, has found that alcohol, especially malt liquor, is more widely available in poor, black neighborhoods.

The study, released yesterday, found that poor neighborhoods with high concentrations of African-Americans had significantly greater than average numbers of liquor stores, 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor in coolers, and storefront ads promoting malt liquor.

"It wasn't overly surprising, as I think there's been anecdotal evidence to suggest that," said Rhonda Jones-Webb, the study's principal investigator. "We are one of the first to systematically document that."

Some local activists said yesterday that liquor stores are preying on the poor. "Start at the intersection of Dudley Street and Blue Hill Avenue and go all the way to Mattapan. . . . There's more liquor stores than churches," said the Rev. Shaun Harrison, who works to keep youths out of gangs at Project GO (Gang Out).

A spokesman for the state's liquor store industry disputed the findings and pointed out that applications for new stores are reviewed by state and local agencies.

Malt liquor is of particular concern, the university researchers said, because of its high alcohol content and the fact that its 40-ounce containers are sold cold for immediate consumption at a low price. The study found the average 40-ounce bottle cost just $1.87, less than a gallon of milk.

"It's cheaper than pot, cheaper than crack," said Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, which has offices in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain.

Small said malt liquor sales are a contributing factor to the myriad problems that impoverished communities face. "You're more prone to have a chip on your shoulder when you've got two bottles of that ... in you," he said.

While upper- and middle-class neighborhoods are likely to organize against such businesses, Harrison said, poor and minority communities, long ago disenfranchised, are not likely to put up much of a fight.

"It's a setup," he said. Policy makers "know they're poor; they know there's violence. Why do they have to put another liquor store in there?"

In the early 1990s, Small organized efforts to combat drug- and alcohol-related nuisance problems in inner-city Philadelphia. He said he would like to see the same happen here in Boston.

"We've got smoking cessation programs, sex awareness programs, but no one is focusing on fortified liquor consumption and its impact on communities," he said.

"This should be the kind of thing the City Council should at least hold a hearing on."

Peter Kessel, president of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, said he does not believe that poor neighborhoods in Boston have more liquor stores than some more well-to-do neighborhoods. He stressed that as state and local agencies review applications for new liquor stores they consider the number already operating in that neighborhood, as well as input from residents during public hearings.

"Discretion is exercised to protect the public from an overabundance of stores" in considering a store's application, Kessel said. "We are very proud of the system we have here in Massachusetts - it's based on public need."

Kessel, a liquor store owner himself, also questioned whether malt liquor is more problematic than other alcoholic beverages, pointing out that hard liquor, such as vodka, has a higher alcohol content. He also said the types of liquor sold in a package store reflect the tastes or preferences of residents in that particular neighborhood. "You're not going to market a $100 bottle of Dom if no one is going to buy it," he said.

Dorothy Joyce, spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said she was unaware of the study and declined to comment.

James Vaznis of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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