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How do Race and Income Affect Exposure to Alcohol Outlets?

Black and Hispanic minority populations are less healthy than the white majority population. Some research studies have found that areas in the US with higher proportions of black and Hispanic residents have greater concentrations of alcohol outlets, and there is also considerable evidence that problems such as violence, traffic crashes, and child abuse occur more frequently in areas with more alcohol outlets (such as bars, liquor stores, and grocery stores that sell alcohol). This suggests that one possible reason for this disparity in health is that blacks and Hispanics are exposed to a larger number of alcohol outlets in their neighborhoods. But is this environmental injustice based on race or income? A new study carried out by the Prevention Research Center in Oakland California (part of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation) along with Monash University in Victoria, Australia, aims to find out.

The study finds that the geographic distribution of alcohol outlets is related to two main features – demand for alcohol and the income of local residents. Researchers approximated the demand for alcohol within geographic areas using an approach that estimated the “market potential” for alcohol. They used a combination of Census data and the results of a telephone survey of 8,790 adults aged 18 and older conducted between January 2009 and March 2010 in households across 50 cities in California. The found higher market potential was most strongly related to higher population density and higher income, and that alcohol outlets were found in areas with greater market potential.

After accounting for the market potential for alcohol, outlets were also found in lower income areas. Researchers suggest this is because outlets are excluded from higher income areas due to higher costs for rent, and because, higher income residents are more likely to be effective in opposing undesirable land uses – such as bars and liquor stores.  In all, the study suggests greater concentrations of outlets will be found in areas with greater population density and lower average income, and will be located near higher income areas where higher income groups find it convenient to shop. Race and ethnicity appeared to have very little impact on alcohol outlet density independent of the effects of income.

It appears that exposure to alcohol outlets contributes more substantially to health disparities between higher and lower income populations than between racial and ethnic groups. These findings by no means minimize the importance of examining economic and environmental issues related to health.  The findings support intervention, such as density limits or the proactive use of planning and zoning ordinances, to address health disparities.  But it appears that these disparities are more closely related to income than to racial and ethnic differences.

For the full paper, see: Morrison C, Gruenewald PJ, Ponicki WR, Race, Ethnicity, and Exposure to Alcohol Outlets, J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2016 Jan; 77(1):68-76.