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Late Night Alcohol Service and Public Health Risks: Bar Morphing

January 2019

Heavy drinking is associated with a range of public health harms, such as alcohol toxicity, auto crashes, and physical and sexual assaults. In contrast to efforts to reduce these harms, some business practices of restaurants and bars conflict with the goal of protecting public health.

New research from the Prevention Research Center (PRC) of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation examines the extent of “bar morphing”.  Morphing is a marketing strategy in which restaurants or bars alter their physical environments, especially later at night, to attract customers who are more likely to drink heavily.  Morphing adds to the number of locations in which late-night drinking occurs in communities and increases associated alcohol-related risks.

PRC researchers conducted observational studies in 97 restaurants and bars across 6 California cities that served alcohol and interviewed staff and patrons in a sample of them. Bar morphing was an unexpected finding. Overall, they found that 17.5% of establishments altered the environments to increase bar/nightclub effects – that is, altering operating conditions from restaurant to bar, or from bar to club. Staff and customers in these establishments reported that morphing increases alcohol sales later at night. Further, morphed establishments displayed characteristics associated with over-service and alcohol-related problems, such as attracting more young, male patrons, more crowding, and dancing.

The authors conclude that competition for late night customers may encourage business practices that increase the number of alcohol sales establishments operating under risky circumstances. Community alcohol policies and practices should attend to the possible expansion of risky alcohol sales niches in night-time economies.

Says lead author, Juliet Lee: For bar and restaurant managers, the opportunity to increase profits by staying open a bit later and promoting alcohol service may outweigh costs to their business. Costs may, however, be passed onto communities in the form of high-risk drinking. Careful local licensing and regulation can reduce these risks. 

:  Lee, Juliet P., Anna Pagano, Christopher Morrison, Paul J. Gruenewald, and Friedner D. Wittman. "Late night environments: Bar “morphing” increases risky alcohol sales in on-premise outlets." Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy 25, no. 5 (2018): 431-437.

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PIRE is an independent, nonprofit organization merging scientific knowledge and proven practice to create solutions that improve the health, safety and well-being of individuals, communities, and nations around the world.

The Prevention Research Center (PRC) of PIRE is one of 16 centers sponsored by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), of the National Institutes of Health, and is the only one that specializes in prevention. PRC's focus is on conducting research to better understand the social and physical environments that influence individual behavior that lead to alcohol and drug misuse.

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