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Bad habits take hit

Data show many people smoke, drink less during recession

Meredith Cohn Baltimore Sun

It took a moment to make the connection, but Jake Sawyers said 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 Sawyers, 30, a Canton, Md., 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, along 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 still indulging. Some even more. But the findings, particularly those compiled since the economy began sliding in fall 2008, indicate that the U.S. 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 drinking 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.

•Tax revenue from cigarette sales plummeted almost 29 percent in the second half of 2008 in Maryland, for instance, with an extra dollar-a-pack tax added in January 2009 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 smoked in 2007, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s down from about 23 percent 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. “We have just as many people come to wine tastings, but they won’t buy a case. They’ll buy a bottle,” said Ian Stalfort of The Wine Source in Hampden, Md. “We’re definitely selling more cheaper wine.”

Justin and Darcie O’Connor, puffing on cigarettes while visiting Maryland 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,” Justin said about their favorite happy hour. “The recession definitely got us thinking.”

Christopher J. Ruhm, an economist at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, said he found the “income effect” had 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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