Early data show increase in alcohol emergencies in Washington

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Shoppers are buying a bit more hard liquor now that they can find it at four times as many stores and during twice as many hours as it was available before voters privatized liquor sales in 2011.

So how is Washington handling its extra liquor?

Partly — according to researchers who are trying to answer that question — by making more trips to the emergency room.

Those researchers gave a preliminary report Wednesday to the state Liquor Control Board on the effects of Initiative 1183.

Consider kids on Medicaid. Researchers say if previous trends had held up, they would have expected about 1,000 statewide alcohol-related ER visits in late 2012 and early 2013 by Medicaid-enrolled minors 20 and younger. But there were 290 more visits than they expected in that period, the first 13 months of private-sector spirits sales.

Or take the state’s biggest county, where researchers were able to look at patients of all ages and income levels. King County ERs would have been expected to see about 10,000 alcohol-related visits between June 2012 and September 2013, according to the study, but the actual use turned out to be 50 percent higher.

Voters approved getting the government out of the business of liquor, closing the 328 state and contract liquor stores and turning sales over to the private market. More than 1,400 liquor retailers rushed in.

Researchers estimate liquor sales have grown since then, but not as much as one might think — by a modest 3 to 4 percent more than they would have otherwise.

The good news: State government has a bit more revenue, at least for now.

The bad news: a rise in emergency room visits, which researchers say is happening among minors younger than 21 and among both men and women 40 and older.

The study doesn’t yet differentiate between visits directly caused by liquor consumption, such as those for alcohol poisoning, and visits prompted by injuries sustained while the patients were drunk. Researchers will be able to do that as they go on.

Other effects — such as drunken driving — also might come into clearer focus as the study continues. The study is being funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Principal investigators are an Oregon health official, Julia Dilley, and Linda Becker of the Washington Department of Social and Health Services.

As for where minors are getting the booze that is sending them to the ER in increasing numbers, researchers can’t say for sure.

It appears kids aren’t buying more liquor. The now-defunct state-controlled stores sold to undercover minors on just 7 percent of compliance checks, researchers say. Private stores, they say, are selling hard liquor to kids between 6 percent and 9 percent of the time.

Investigators do think alcohol thefts are on the rise, although they have yet to be able to quantify them.

Surveys of youth support, to some extent, what the tally of ER visits implies.

While kids have long tended to say they can get alcohol if they want it, researchers say there has been a decline over the years with kids less likely to report it was “very easy” to get alcohol. Researchers would have expected that decline to continue into 2012, and for most grades, it did. But it didn’t fall as much as expected for high school sophomores.

The share of high school seniors saying alcohol was “very easy” to get actually increased a bit, from 33 percent in 2010 to 35 percent in 2012.

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