On Your Health

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A Summary of Changes to Alcohol Laws in Oklahoma

In Oklahoma it doesn’t matter if we're singing about waving wheat or hollering "Boomer Sooner" during football games, it’s a well-known fact that our state traditions run deep. We’re protective of our heritage and we don’t easily change the way we do things.

One example? Our long-standing laws concerning alcohol. While we love to celebrate our traditions with a beer, it has historically been the kind with low alcohol content, called "low-point beer." Until recently, Oklahoma was one of only a few states that outlawed the sale of beer with higher alcohol content except in specially licensed liquor stores.

This originates with Oklahoma's prohibition laws that banned the sale of alcohol outright until the 1930s. After that, spirits and warm wine and high-point beer could be purchased at a licensed liquor store, but grocery stores and the like had to make do with selling only low-point beer that had 3.2 percent alcohol content, which was then considered "non-intoxicating."

During the election of November 2016, Oklahomans voted yes to State Question 792, thereby creating the framework to change Oklahoma’s regulations about alcohol. Once the vote succeeded, a two-year window opened before the new laws would take effect.

In the fall of 2018, Oklahoma’s laws concerning alcohol officially changed for the first time in decades. Whether or not you supported the state question, now that stronger wine and beer are more readily available for purchase, we think it’s important to educate you on the changes that may affect how you consume them.

Changes at liquor stores

You've probably already noticed some changes at liquor stores.

  • Wine and beer can be refrigerated and sold cold.
  • Liquors stores are now allowed to sell non-alcoholic items such as mixers, corkscrews and glasses, as long as those sales don’t exceed 20 percent of monthly sales. 
  • Liquor stores are now allowed to stay open until midnight.

Changes at grocery stores, convenience stores and gas stations, etc.

When you visit your local Walmart, grocery store, gas station or convenience store you’ve likely seen differences there, too.

  • The beer choices are different since they include beers with up to 9 percent alcohol.
  • Wine up to 15 percent alcohol can be stocked on shelves for sale.
  • Sales of wine and beer are allowed from 7 a.m. until 2 a.m.
  • Cashiers handling the wine and beer must be at least 18 years old.

Other changes

Other, not so obvious changes include:

  • Wineries are now allowed to ship a limited amount of wine directly to households.
  • Breweries can stay open the same hours as bars.
  • Liquor store owners can own two stores instead of just one.
  • Gas station attendants and grocery store clerks who sell wine and high-point beer need to be licensed by the ABLE Commission.

What doesn’t change

A few things that don’t change with the new laws:

  • Grocery stores, convenience stores and gas stations, etc. won’t sell liquor, wine over 15 percent alcohol, or beer over 9 percent.
  • The ABLE Commission is still in charge of monitoring all businesses involved in selling alcohol in Oklahoma.
  • Anyone who works in a liquor store or serves liquor by the drink must be 21 years old and licensed to sell through the ABLE Commission.

How will these changes affect Oklahomans?

Many adults consume alcohol responsibly, and the practice is part of the fabric of our culture. Having a beer while watching football or a champagne toast at your big event are common and socially acceptable.

However, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), "Alcohol-related problems among adults and adolescents — which result from drinking too much, too fast, or too often — are among the most significant public health issues in the U.S."

  • More than 88,000 people die from alcohol-related deaths each year
  • 15 million people in the U.S. suffer from Alcohol Use Disorder
  • More than 10 percent of U.S. children live with a parent who has problems with alcohol

As for Oklahoma, excessive drinking results in 1,350 deaths each year. The CDC says that in Oklahoma, 16.5 percent of adults and 23.3 percent of high school students reported binge drinking in one recent year.

Because of statistics like these, discussions for and against the alcohol laws grew heated during the 2016 voting season. The truth is, no one knows yet the real impact on Oklahomans since the new rules have just gone into effect. Concerned groups throughout the U.S. have created studies to try and figure out how loosening regulations will affect society in the long run, but they aren’t definitive.

A reporter from the Oklahoma Gazette interviewed Phillip Klebba, a chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma, about the differences between the 3.2 beer that was once the only thing available in grocery stores and a standard 6 percent beer.

Klebba pointed out that the special low-point beer in Oklahoma was always measured by weight, while standard beer is usually calculated by volume, so there is less of a difference than some might think. As it turns out, the 6 percent beer has about 1.5 percent more alcohol than the 3.2 beer. When calculated by weight like the 3.2 beer, the 6 percent beer actually has 4.7 percent alcohol content.

Klebba then cautioned that less of a difference doesn't mean no difference at all. "There certainly is a difference in how many beers you can drink without feeling the effects. If someone were to drink three of the 6-point beer, that would be equivalent to five beers of the old 3.2," he said in the article.

It’s also important to remember that grocery stores, convenience stores and gas stations are now able to sell beer with up to 9 percent alcohol content. If someone drank three of those, that would be equivalent to approximately eight beers of the old 3.2 beer.

Will it cause an increase in alcoholism in Oklahoma?

With Oklahoma ranking second in the nation in substance abuse disorders, there is concern whether more convenient access to products with higher alcohol content will cause a rise in alcoholism.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention task force on alcohol outlets found "sufficient evidence of a positive association between outlet density and excessive alcohol consumption and related harms."

In other words, the task force found a correlation between more liquor availability and more alcohol-related problems. This study and other data from the CDC on excessive alcohol use were regularly cited by opponents to the state question.

We asked Dr. Kimberlee Wilson, an addiction psychiatrist who leads the addiction medicine efforts at the INTEGRIS Arcadia Trails Center for Addiction Recovery, for her thoughts.

"We know an increase in access translates into an increase in risk. However, I think the most important thing for Oklahomans to know, if one makes the choice to consume alcohol and understands the risks involved, is how to approach the use of alcohol safely. To do that everyone should know the limits of what he or she can consume," she says.

The goal is to make an informed choice, consume safe amounts and stay within what Wilson calls "low-risk drinking limits." She says, "Anything over low-risk drinking is considered high-risk drinking."

These low-risk drinking limits established by the NIAAA are different for men and women.

  • For men, the low-risk limit is four drinks per day, or a maximum of 14 drinks total per week.
  • For women, it’s up to three drinks per day, but only includes seven drinks total per week.
  • Seniors over the age of 65 have the same recommended limits as women, because as people age they lose the ability to produce enough enzymes to metabolize alcohol.

It’s also important to know the standard drink sizes for different types of alcohol. One standard drink of alcohol is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine and 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. And knowing the standard alcohol content of each type is key: a standard beer has around 5 percent alcohol content, standard wine has 12 percent and spirits have about 40 percent.

To sum it up, Dr. Wilson says, "High-risk drinking is concerning because it places someone at risk for dangerous behaviors, physical and mental medical complications, and addiction."

Will there be more fatal car accidents due to drinking?

A 2013 study published in the academic journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, called "Economic and Social Implications of Regulating Alcohol Availability in Grocery Stores," is full of complex outcomes relating to the results of laws similar to those enacted in Oklahoma.

The article focuses on topics including density of stores, hours of sales, and types of stores selling wine and high-point beer. Ultimately, it did not conclude that selling beer and wine in grocery stores would lead to more fatal vehicle accidents.

How are employees learning to help keep people safe?

Employees who are new to selling, mixing or serving alcohol aren’t always familiar with how to deal with common issues like underage attempts to buy alcohol or over-intoxicated customers. Training programs like the Responsible Beverage Service and Sales class or the Alcohol Compliance Education class are preparing inexperienced workers for possible situations.

Free alcohol use disorder screening

If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, don’t hesitate to take steps to ensure everyone’s safety. Take our free, anonymous online screening, and once you’ve finished, your results will give you actionable information, recommendations and resources to help you move forward.

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