THIS WEEK’S debate at the State House puts the spotlight on our drinking problem in Massachusetts. Drinks to Go,” originally intended as a temporary measure to help local restaurants through the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, may have generated needed revenue for local businesses at a critical time, but, if continued, it will burden the Commonwealth with much bigger social and economic costs.

The Drinks to Go” measure puts Massachusetts youth at further risk, when they are already suffering from the worst underage use in the country.Nearly a third of people ages 12-20 have consumed alcohol, and 20 percent have participated in binge drinking. This is important to address because within the last decade underage drinking cost the residents of Massachusetts $1.3 billion in medical costs, work loss, and costs associated with pain and suffering. Broken down, this represents a cost of $1,834 per youth each year, or $3.48 for every drink consumed by an underage youth.

According to brain science, youth alcohol use drives adult problem drinking. A 2020 study reveals the Bay State has the eighth biggest drinking problem in America, and another study indicates our multiracial population’s excessive drinking is 36 percent above the national average. This is troubling because alcohol use significantly contributes to health inequities: the same amount of alcohol causes more harm in poor or marginalized communities than in affluent communities.

Boston University’s 2022 Alcohol, Health and Safety Report reveals that alcohols role in death and disability in the Bay State has risen by 13.8 percent since 2009 — faster than lung cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and tobacco use. In 2020, there were 3,700 assaults, 99 homicides, and 148 suicides in Massachusetts that would not have happened if alcohol had not been involved. Fatal crashes involving drunk drivers are more common in Massachusetts (32.4 percent) than nationwide (28 percent), and alcohol causes 1 in 20 deaths in Massachusetts.

Reducing underage drinking in the Bay State is critical to curb these harmful outcomes. Cocktails to Go has become a new access point for minors to get alcohol. According to the BU report, a small study on Cocktails to Go conducted by the Massachusetts Alcohol Policy Coalition found that 15 percent of the recipients of delivered alcohol were youth under 21, and 46 percent of the delivery drivers did not check recipientsID cards. Among all orders, 53 percent of the recipients reported no one checked their IDs upon order delivery. One alcohol home delivery order was placed in the hands of a 10-year-old child, and several were delivered to college dorms without ID verification.”

The Drinks to Go program has already caused significant problems in other states, leading to increased illegal sales to minors. Tennessee rushed to make Drinks to Go permanent and saw a 42 percent increase in illegal sales to minors in 2022, a 72 percent increase in 2021, and 42 percent in 2020. Tennessee is now considering doing away with Drinks to Go given the enforcement challenges.

In Massachusetts, law enforcement is already under-resourced when it comes to alcohol monitoring, with the fifth-lowest ratio of enforcement agents to licensees in the country. And despite the fact that Massachusetts leads the country when it comes to underage drinking rates, Massachusetts has not prepared a plan for or a report on preventing underage drinking in the last three years. Although local agencies conduct underage compliance checks to determine whether alcohol retailers are complying with laws prohibiting sales to minors, no data is collected on these activities. Massachusetts does not employ widely researched and accepted prevention strategies that other states with much lower underage drinking rates are employing, like Shoulder Tap Operations and Party Patrol Programs. Further, Massachusetts has no written guidelines for penalties that are imposed on retailers for furnishing liquor to a minor.

The bottom line is Drinks to Go has proven elsewhere to be very difficult to enforce, even in states with more enforcement coverage. Drinks are routinely provided to minors via the measure, which is a significant health risk and program liability. Drinks to Go will further exacerbate Massachusetts’ serious drinking problem. Instead, the Commonwealth needs legislation to strengthen science-based policies to protect youth and prevent alcohol-related disease, deaths, costs, and community harms.

Heidi Hellman is president of the Massachusetts Addiction Prevention Alliance.