By Erica Leary, Program Manager, North Coastal Prevention Coalition

Is Alcohol Coming to a Theater Near You?

Popcorn and a fizzy, carbonated beverage are usually the perfect pairing to any date at the cinemas. But today, more and more theatres across the county are applying for liquor licenses to sell alcohol. While industry reps will say it’s simply a move to enhance the customer experience and stay competitive in a changing market, coalitions and resident groups have growing concerns.

According to the National Association of Theater Owners, out of the 5,800 theatres across the country, 600 serve alcohol, and the majority of movie theaters have plans to sell alcohol within the next ten years. However, this trend doesn’t always sit well with families. In San Diego County, residents convinced councilmembers in National City to deny an alcohol application for an AMC Theatre located in an area that California’s Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) classified as having an over-abundance of alcohol licenses. Similarly, youth groups and PTA’s persuaded councilmembers in Orange County’s Aliso Viejo to deny an alcohol permit for an Edward’s Theater. 

Coalitions and resident groups often have greater influence when the local government requires a conditional use permit (CUP) for alcohol sales.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case in one of the cities where our coalition works.  A new Regal theater opened at the Westfield Mall in Carlsbad and has applied for an alcohol license.  The location is frequented by teens, families, and young military personnel.  The police department is not in favor of allowing alcohol in all theaters, but the decision ultimately rests with the ABC since no CUP is required.

Our coalition, the North Coastal Prevention Coalition (NCPC), administered a survey to assess public opinion.  60 percent of the 870 respondents oppose the sale of alcohol proposed at the new Regal Carlsbad 12 theater.

One of the main concerns cited is the potential for an increase in underage drinking due to ease of alcohol accessibility, and difficulty monitoring a dark theater. Underage drinking has severe side effects, including higher chances of developing alcohol dependency for individuals who start drinking at a young age. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that 5,000 deaths occur each year among individuals under the age of 21 due to alcohol consumption.

Local residents also expressed concerns about increased instances of drinking and driving, as well as creating an overall unsafe environment for children.

I share these concerns. As those of us who work in public health and prevention know, reducing access and availability is one of the most consistently proven deterrents to underage drinking. Distributing alcohol in theatres that are open to all ages provides greater temptation and access for minors to drink.

Typically, a movie theater is a safe, family-friendly environment where parents often let their tweens and teens go with their friends without adult supervision. But by allowing our movie theaters to look more like bars, are the days of letting my kids catch a flick with friends over?

In a world where alcohol is an almost-unavoidable aspect of social settings, how can we minimize its negative effects? One compromise could be allowing alcohol service solely in theaters that are 21 and over. Regardless, coalitions across the country should be aware of this growing trend and ensure their members have an opportunity to share concerns and negotiate conditions that make prevention a priority in their communities.

In addition to serving as the Program Manager for the North Coastal Prevention Coalition (NCPC), Erica Leary is a member of CADCA’s Coalition Advisory Committee and a mother of two.