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More turn to hard liquor over beer

BY DANNY VALENTINE | FEBRUARY 25, 2010 7:30 AM

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As the state’s No. 83 best-selling booze, Iowa liquor retailers sold 3,689 cases of Everclear 151 last year.

But the notorious spirit’s pungent punch — the target of possible state restrictions — is rivaled by numerous other high-octane brands. Those ranks are growing, too.

Liquor companies are developing new 100-plus proof spirits for popular labels, and traditional high spirit brands are increasing in popularity and prevalence, said Lynn Walding, the administrator of the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division.

That might be a problem, according to the liquor-regulatory agency.

The Alcohol Division, as part of a campaign to raise awareness about high-proof alcohol and Everclear, will address the issue with University of Iowa students at 2:30 p.m. today in the IMU.

The agency will eventually make recommendations on whether to tighten regulations on Everclear.
This year, there are 32 spirits at or above 100 proof sold through the state, up from 24 in 2005, according to data from the state’s liquor division. The division has turned down some labels to limit the number of powerful spirits, Walding said.

This is an alarming trend, especially for new and inexperienced drinkers, Walding said.

The change seems to mirror an increase in alcohol-related incidents, such as a 2009 incident in which a Drake University student drank enough Everclear to send him to the hospital with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.50, he said. Blood-alcohol levels above 0.40 are potentially fatal, according to the University of Rochester Health Service.

“The issue of high-proof alcohol is really an issue of maturity and understanding the effects of alcohol on the body,” Walding said. “In that sense, young adults and underage consumers seem to be particularly at risk because of that lack of familiarity.”

Between 2003 and 2008, blood-alcohol concentrations for UI students referred to Health Iowa jumped from an average range of 0.13-0.17 to 0.18-0.25, according to Health Iowa. At the same time, the Johnson County Ambulance Service has been hit with more alcohol-related ambulance calls.

Students may turn to spirits more frequently because with high-proof drinks they will feel the effects faster, said Professor Emeritus Peter Nathan, an alcohol expert and former UI provost.

Hard liquor can also be consumed more rapidly, decreasing the likelihood that they will be detected underage, he said.

There is nothing inherent in high-proof alcohol that would make it more dangerous, said Stephan Arndt, the director of the Iowa Consortium for Substance Abuse Research and Evaluation. Alcohol is alcohol, whether consumed as a beer or a shot or a tequila sunrise, he said.

But people tend to consume hard liquor faster, he said.

“You’re not really socially sipping your shot. You’re shooting it,” he said. “The way people drink that stuff is different.”

In addition to seeing more high-proof alcohol, the state has witnessed a spike in spirit consumption over the past 10 years — a trend that can be seen both nationally and internationally, Walding noted.

Liquor sales across Iowa have increased from around $100 million in 2000 to around $210 million a decade later. Beer sales, by comparison, have remained relatively flat, said Walding.

The number of gallons of spirits sold in Johnson County increased from around 144,000 to more than 240,000 between fiscal 2000 and 2009. That’s an increase of nearly 67 percent.

Arndt said that higher sales of spirits is troubling because higher spirit consumption is tied to higher rates of alcoholism.

Story County and Black Hawk County, home to the other two state universities, also saw huge increases.

Walding cited numerous reasons for the spike in spirits, including a much more aggressive industry, more women drinking mixed drinks, and a generation that generally prefers sweeter drinks.


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