Each morning, Red and Joe make their way from the woods to a gas station, where the convenience store carries stock the local grocer refuses to sell. This is where they’ll spend most of the money they find and panhandle. 

In the cooler are 32 of the 46 cheap brands banned on Capitol Hill, in Chinatown/International District, the Central Area, downtown and the University District.

Those neighborhoods are included in Alcohol Impact Areas (AIAs). Seattle’s first was created for Pioneer Square in 2003; the larger Central Core and North AIAs, in 2006. The purpose of an AIA is to address the problems chronic public inebriates (CPIs) cause to themselves and neighborhoods: What is the cost of chronic public inebriation?

Sobering AIA statistics

A University of Washington study, in partnership with the Downtown Emergency Service Center, was published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in June 2009. Entitled “Health Care and Public Service Use and Costs Before and After Provision of Housing for Chronically Homeless Persons With Severe Alcohol Problems,” it concludes that Housing First programs that give CPIs a place to live will decrease public costs. 

The study group of 95 housed participants who were allowed to drink showed a decrease in use of services of more than $4.3 million, compared to $8.1 million without housing, resulting in a public savings of $3.8 million. The study says the median cost of one CPI to the social-safety net is $4,066 per month.

AIAs reduce that burden on public-health and -safety systems. According to a 2008 City of Seattle report, in the 18 months before the Central Core and North AIAs were implemented, emergency-service patrols responded to 21,488 alcohol-related incidents requiring transport. In the 18 months after the AIAs were implemented, the patrols responded to 19,455 — more than 2,000 fewer citywide pickups for public alcohol emergencies. 

The Seattle Police Department reported a 15-percent reduction in Central Core AIA adult liquor violations, an 18-percent reduction in parks-exclusion orders and a 20 percent reduction in criminal trespass. 

For the North AIA, there was a 31-percent reduction in liquor violations, a 43-percent reduction in parks exclusions and a 20-percent reduction in criminal trespass.

The Sobering Unit van that picks up severely intoxicated people saw a 9-percent decline in the same period.

Targeting inebriates?

Seattle’s AIAs are working. Still, there are neighborhoods — Lake City, Ballard, and Beacon Hill — that call for new AIAs.

A myth about Alcohol Impact Areas is they shove the problem into other neighborhoods. The city’s 2009 and 2010 raw data of emergency medical-service calls do not support that conclusion. Problems associated with CPIs in neighborhoods without AIAs may be as dramatic as those for pre-AIA neighborhoods, but they are not caused by the existence of the AIAs. 

Some neighborhoods have historic issues with chronic inebriates. In Lake City, evidence of public alcoholism is readily found. And, according to the city’s 2008 report to the state Liquor Control Board, Ballard is an “area of high density” of CPI-related emergencies “that is not within an AIA.” 

Beacon Hill provides a marketplace for CPIs to purchase AIA-covered beverages that they take back to AIA neighborhoods, or consume in public or in wooded areas on Beacon Hill. 

A longtime member of block watches and cleanup crews in the International District recently told me, “Every place you see blood on a sidewalk, there was a fight involving malt liquor.” Malt liquors are included in that area’s AIA; the source is Beacon Hill.

Another myth is that AIAs target poor people who should enjoy the same rights as other Americans. Wasn’t the 18th Amendment repealed and so put an end to Prohibition? Isn’t an AIA another form of Prohibition? This argument doesn’t address the profit motive of beverage manufacturers that target specific groups. 

Formulas of AIA beverages typically have high alcohol and sugar content. When Red and Joe start drinking Olde English 800 in the morning, they won’t eat for the rest of the day as the sugar kills their appetites. They will drink cheap, high-octane swill all day if they can. 

A social-justice argument would support creation of AIAs to reduce the harm large corporate interests promote by marketing these beverages.

The cost of life

It takes work to get an AIA. Citizens must collect hard evidence of empty containers, which can be correlated with emergency-response data. The Seattle City Council must then enact a voluntary AIA. 

If the voluntary measure is unsuccessful, the City Council can then request that the state Liquor Control Board create a new mandatory AIA. Once a mandatory AIA comes into effect, stores within its boundaries will be prevented from selling specific beverages.

What would the effect be on Red and Joe? According to JAMA, chronic inebriates have a life expectancy of “42 to 52 years, with 30 to 70 percent of deaths related to alcohol.” Each of them will cost public services about $49,000 per year. 

Red and Joe are in their late 30s and look 20 years older. Red’s distended belly isn’t from beer; it’s his liver, which is failing. To these men, an AIA wouldn’t just improve their quality of life — it could mean giving them a chance to have a life at all.

CRAIG THOMPSON is a longtime community activist.