Recession can do a body good

Drinkers, smokers reining in their habits as economy ravages their income

Recession Tales

April 01, 2009|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

It took a moment to make the connection, but Jake Sawyers says the recession has been good for him, or at least for his health.

"I smoke when I drink, and I drink when I go out and I've been doing less of that," said the 36-year-old Canton resident who was buying a pack of cigarettes at a neighborhood convenience store. "I am also exercising more. Maybe I have more energy because I'm not drinking and smoking as much."

Sawyers isn't alone. Data show that many people are taming their vices rather than drowning their sorrows these days - behavior that national researchers say is consistent with past recessions. The desire to drink and smoke may grow with financial pressures, but sales of some alcohol and cigarettes are dipping with disposable income.

"It's a complete myth that people drink more during recessions. In fact, just the opposite is true," said David Ozgo, the Distilled Spirits Council's chief economist, who has studied recessions since the 1970s. Liquor sales nationally started slowing in 2007 and dropped 5 percent to 10 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008.

The evidence is not conclusive because other studies and informal polls show that many people are indulging in the same amounts. Some even more. But the findings, particularly those compiled since the economy began sliding last fall, indicate that the country as a whole might end up a bit healthier for its troubles:

* Nine percent of U.S. consumers have cut down on smoking and 14 percent have cut down on alcohol or bought cheaper brands, according to a February Nielsen Co. report.

* Consumers were eating out and drinking less in the fourth quarter of 2008 compared with 2007. Also, more wine was sold by the glass than by the bottle, according to a report from the National Restaurant Association. The Beer Institute, a trade group representing brewers, reported that beer sales dropped about 2 percent in restaurants and bars in 2008, though less expensive store sales of beer rose about 1 percent.

* In Maryland, tax receipts from beer sales were down 1.5 percent in the second half of 2008 compared with 2007, though those from wine and spirits sales were up about the same amount. Alcohol sellers fear a proposed state alcohol tax increase would weaken sales.

* Tax revenue from cigarette sales plummeted almost 29 percent in the second half of 2008 in the state, with an extra dollar-a-pack tax added in January, as well as an indoor smoking ban, likely suppressing demand, according to the comptroller's office. Smoking in general has been trending downward. About 20 percent of Americans and 17 percent of Marylanders smoked in 2007, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's down from about 23 percent and 22 percent, respectively, in 1998.

However, Dana Lefko, manager of mission services and advocacy for the American Lung Association of Maryland, said cost has definitely become an issue. She's been fielding calls from people seeking help quitting because "they can't afford to smoke anymore."

As for alcohol, habits are also changing. The Wine Source in Hampden reports that microbrews are still selling, but they aren't much more expensive than mass-produced beer. It's wine, which varies greatly in price, that has people looking for bargains.

"We have just as many people come to wine tastings, but they won't buy a case. They'll buy a bottle," store wine buyer Ian Stalfort said. "We're definitely selling more cheaper wine."

Justin and Darcie O'Connor, puffing on cigarettes while on a visit to the Inner Harbor from Colorado, said beer at the stores and bars has become too expensive. They've begun brewing their own and drinking at home. And if cigarette prices rise more, they'll probably stop or roll their own.

"Thirsty Thursdays are no more," he said about their favorite happy hour. "The recession definitely got us thinking."

Christopher J. Ruhm, an economist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, said he found the "income effect" had most people turning from heavier consumption of cigarettes and alcohol to lighter consumption, not to abstinence. They also sought cheaper alternatives.

That describes Ryan Graham, 32, who bought a kegerator, a converted refrigerator that holds a keg of beer. He, his friends and bandmates can now drink their favorite microbrews for far less at his home in Baltimore. "I have band practice over at my house. In return for not having to deal with the hassle of loading up my gear and driving somewhere else to practice, I let my bandmates drink as much as they want from the kegerator," he said. "But if I started struggling for money or if the cost of beer increased much more, I'd definitely start making them bring their own beer."

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