Study: As alcohol access increases in Bethel, so do demands on health and safety responders

How Bethel votes on alcohol has a big effect on both the community and its emergency service providers. That’s the takeaway from a study looking at more than a decade of data from law enforcement, health providers, state agencies and non-profits.

The data comes from 2007 to 2018. During that time, Bethel voted to leave state local option alcohol restriction status. Then, following a community advisory vote, AC opened a liquor store in 2016. The shop was Bethel’s first liquor store in nearly four decades. A couple years later in 2018, it closed.

A bottle of R&R Whiskey found lying in a Bethel parking lot. (Photo credit Dean Swope/KYUK}

Leaving local option and opening a liquor store made alcohol easier to get and made the lives of emergency service providers harder. That’s what UAA Professor and Researcher Janet Johnston sees when she looks at the monthly service counts collected from the Bethel Police Department, Bethel Fire Department, Alaska State Troopers, Bethel Search and Rescue, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation and the Office of Children’s Services.

Here are some of the preliminary results: after the liquor store opened, calls to the police for intoxicated pedestrians went up 50 percent. Crimes against people went up 20 percent, but crimes against property did not go up. Fire department runs increased by 40 percent. Admissions to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation emergency room and sobering center increased by 15 percent. The biggest spike at YKHC occurred in October, timed with the Permanent Fund Dividend distribution. YKHC saw another peak in April.

“But that peak wasn’t quite as clear,” Johnston explained. “And I was asking people what might be going on, and they said it could be a combination of, with the nicer weather more people were coming into town, people coming in for employment. There could be dividends from organizations other than the state.”

The increased demand on services extended beyond Bethel. When Bethel left local option status in 2010, Alaska State Trooper data from the Bethel, Kusilvak and Yukon-Koyukuk census areas doubled for alcohol crimes like bootlegging, driving under the influence and illegal possession and transport. The number of crimes increased again across those census areas when the AC Quickstop liquor store opened.

All this data quantifies what has been said for years at public meetings in Bethel: as alcohol access increases, so do demands on health and safety responders, and support for these services needs to increase as alcohol becomes more accessible.

“There are people who really are being affected by this: the people who are experiencing the increase in crime or who are making those calls about intoxicated pedestrians,” Johnston said. “At least a subset of the population here is being affected by the changes in the access to alcohol.”

The study has encouraged some organizations to keep better records of alcohol-related incidents.

Johnston emphasizes that the study only shows an association between events. It can’t show causality, or why the services went up. Also, the results are preliminary. The final study will be released later this year and was funded by Recover Alaska, a nonprofit with the vision of “Alaskans liv[ing] free from the consequences of alcohol misuse.”

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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