By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
There is a harsh reality when it comes to alcohol consumption. Teetotalers are fast becoming a minority. While overall drinking, as measured by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), has slightly declined, you would be very hard pressed to get that impression from all the recent business development in western North Carolina. Distilleries and Breweries are popping up in counties all around us. Local communities are demanding that cocktail options be included in the menu selections at their restaurants. Tourists are making vacation plans based on the availability of local brews and wines.
At first blush, one might think that America and, specifically, western North Carolina is becoming a community of drunks (or, to be politically correct), a community of alcohol-challenged individuals. Per capita, Americans in 2013 consumed just under nine liters of alcoholic beverages (don’t worry if you aren’t drinking that much, someone is making up your portion). So, for every teetotaler, there are several who drink. Per the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH), a 2015 survey indicated that 86.4 percent of people 18 years or older in the U.S. reported that they drank at one point in their lifetime, 70.1 percent said they drank in the past year, and 56 percent said they drank in the past month.
In Maggie Valley, over Soco Mountain, an entrepreneur just opened the town’s first distillery. In case you are wondering what the difference is between a distillery and a brewery…a brewery makes beers and wines, which typically has a lower alcohol content (usually 3 percent up to the teens), whereas a distillery makes spirits, or as my grandma used to call it, “hard liquor” that can have an alcohol content of 50 percent or more.
Breweries have been popping up all over our area. I pass by one in Canton nearly every weekend. They not only brew but they serve and typically, as I drive by their establishment, their outdoor customer seating area is packed with locals and tourists alike. That same scene plays out in Sylva, Cashiers, Bryson City and other municipalities around us many days of the summer.
I am an old-school kind of guy. I made a choice long ago that alcohol just wasn’t the thing to spend money and time on. Don’t get me wrong. In my day, I certainly could be found eating a hot dog or slice and washing it down with a cold brew. But, most of us have had a family member or someone close who has had a problem of going beyond enjoying the taste of alcoholic or “hard” drinks to depending on the chemical effects of alcohol to satisfy a perceived psychologic need. For me, it was my uncle. Many old-school folks refer to alcohol as pain killer. If you are a war movie fan, I am sure you have watched the scenes where the shot-up soldier will guzzle whiskey in preparation for having a bullet removed…or a limb. Alcohol has been used for killing physical and emotional pain for ages. My uncle was in a car accident that resulted in the death of his brother. He started drinking in earnest after the accident; trying to kill the pain of his loss and his role in his brother’s death. He was loud, mean, and at times, dangerous under the influence of alcohol.
The NIH reports that, in 2015, 26.9 percent of people ages 18 or older reported that they engaged in binge drinking in the past month and 7 percent said that they engaged in heavy alcohol use in the past month.
Alcoholic beverage sales are good for business. I have seen the effects of new breweries in Jackson County, for example. The younger clientele, designated as millennials by marketing agencies, are energetic, athletic, and prone to congregate, especially in an environment that is conducive to conversation and drink.
In an article at the Houston Chronicle website (http://smallbusiness.chron.com/revenue-comes-selling-alcohol-34021.html), writer Miranda Morley says this in support of alcohol sales in restaurants, “In the United States, alcohol sales equal about $90 billion per year. Unlike many other entertainment expenses, alcohol sales even tend to thrive during most recessions. In fact, an alcohol industry analyst for Standard and Poor’s told CNN Money that people generally continue to drink through a recession.”
Sound familiar? Gambling is another of the purported recession proof industries. Going back to the brewery in Canton, the clientele at their business were not staggering, dirty, fighting, out-of-control people. They were well-dressed, intelligent, and obviously affluent people. You could remove the beers and you would not see a difference in behavior of the people, but you would just probably see a lot less of them. I have friends who are casual drinkers; great people who are leaders in their respective fields, good husband, wives and parents. I have sat with them in similar public areas while they enjoyed cocktails and the sky did not fall.
We have gotten in a very bad habit in our society. We would rather blame material things instead of be accountable for our own actions when things go wrong.
As an example, when the school shootings have happened across the country in the past couple of decades, there has been a groundswell of people who wanted to ban gun ownership. Somehow, they felt that eliminating access to the gun would stop those with the determination to kill. A gun does not have mind or muscle. It cannot act independently of the person who uses it. And, if you remove the gun from the person without removing the mindset, that person will find choose another way to commit violence on others. Beyond that, guns, used in a proper fashion, are not only harmless, but may be beneficial.
The same is true with the use of alcohol. Surely it can be a hazard to self and others. But, it is medically accepted premise that alcoholic beverages like wine, consumed in moderation, has certain health benefits for many people. In fact, alcohol has been used as a medicine since biblical times. A report from the MAYO clinic states that light or moderate alcohol use may reduce the risk of developing and dying from heart disease, possibly reduce your risk of ischemic stroke (when the arteries to your brain become narrowed or blocked, causing severely reduced blood flow), and possibly reduce your risk of diabetes. This is true with most material things. It is not the material itself, it is how you choose to use it.
Five years ago, our tribe held a referendum on alcohol. At the same time, Jackson County held a referendum for county-wide sales of alcohol. The Tribe voted alcohol down. Jackson County voted it in. Within months of these votes, a package store was established just beyond the “Welcome to Cherokee” sign. Five years later, millions of dollars in revenue have benefitted the entrepreneur who created the establishment and thousands of dollars in taxes have benefitted the citizens of Jackson County. Many of those dollars spent are tribal dollars of community members buying just off the Boundary. One of the arguments at the time of the referendum was that they felt there would be a dramatic increase in alcohol abuse and related crime. The same argument was made prior to the adult gaming operation on Boundary serving alcohol. No such increase has come to pass.
During my college days at WCU, Jackson County was a dry county. Waynesville was not. The college kids would jump in their vehicles and make beer and liquor runs to Haywood County. It was a regular occurrence to hear that a student or community member was injured or killed in a wreck between Waynesville and Cullowhee. Having it in walking distance might save a life. I thought it then and I think now. This is something to consider when addressing the issue of alcohol sales in the community.
With the advent of the Blue Ridge law and the subsequent Tribal Council vote to concur with that law, more local access to alcohol will come. Some restaurants have already applied for and received, legally, permits to sell alcoholic beverages with meals. Whether alcohol is a societal evil or a necessary economic driver is being answered in communities throughout western North Carolina. Some will claim that it is the end of the world as we know it. Others will say that it is opening us up to new worlds of opportunity. And, both viewpoints may be true and coexist.