Beer is displayed for sale inside the Package Store at Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Va. (Jason Hirschfeld / AP)
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NAVAL STATION NORFOLK, VA. — On the world’s largest naval base, sailors can pull into a gas station and buy a bottle of liquor before sunrise.
But as the Navy works to curb alcohol abuse in a push reduce sexual assaults and other crimes, the days of picking up a bottle of Kahlua along with a cup of coffee are coming to an end.
The Navy’s top admiral has ordered a series of changes to the way the Navy sells booze. Chief among them, the Navy will stop selling liquor at its mini marts and prohibit the sale of alcohol at any of its stores from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
“It’s not going to fix everything, but it is a real step in the right direction,” said David Jernigan, Johns Hopkins University’s director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. “Historically, the military, as elsewhere, has viewed these problems as individual problems to be dealt with by identifying the individual with the problem. While that’s important, the research shows it’s much more effective actually to look at it as a population problem and to deal with things that are affecting everybody across the population.”
The changes are the latest addition to a broader, long-standing alcohol education and awareness program that appears to have had some success. Throughout the Navy, the number of alcohol-related criminal offenses dropped from 5,950 in the 2007 fiscal year to 4,216 in the 2012 fiscal year. The number of DUI offenses dropped from 2,025 to 1,218 during that same period, according to Navy Personnel Command.
Liquor will still be sold on U.S. bases at a discount of up to 10 percent for what it can be bought at in a civilian store, but sales will be limited to dedicated package stores or exchanges that sell a wide variety of items.
At Naval Station Norfolk, the main exchange is comparable to a small shopping mall that sells clothing, electronics and jewelry, among other things, at a discount. At smaller naval bases, the exchanges aren’t as sprawling but still often have the feel of big-box retail. While hours at those stores vary, most open at 9 a.m. close by 9 p.m.
The Navy’s minimarts at the Norfolk base currently start selling liquor as early as 6 a.m. That’s four hours earlier than people can buy at Virginia’s state-run ABC stores off-base that are typically open from from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays.
Jernigan said a growing preference among young people for distilled spirits over beer and wine means the Navy’s moves could be particularly helpful.
“But that said, alcohol is alcohol, so reducing the availability of one kind is a step in the right direction, but you can certainly get just as impaired from drinking beer and wine as you can from distilled spirits,” he said.
In the 2012 fiscal year, the Navy reported $91.9 million in distilled spirits sales, compared with $39.3 million in wine and $62.3 million in beer. The Navy uses 70 percent of the profits from its sales of alcoholic and non-alcoholic products to support morale, welfare and recreation programs.
Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert also ordered the exchanges to display alcohol only in the rear of its stores. The new rules are set to take effect by mid-October.
Greenert’s order on alcohol sales was issued the same day in late July the Navy unveiled other initiatives to battle sexual assaults that range from hiring more criminal investigators to installing better lighting on bases.
The effort follows a Pentagon report, released in May, that estimates as many as 26,000 service members may have been sexually assaulted last year.
Alcohol is often involved. In a survey, 55 percent of Navy women said they or the offender had consumed alcohol before unwanted sexual contact.
Navy officials have stressed they’re not trying to keep sailors from drinking, but they want them to do so responsibly.
The Navy is already giving many sailors random alcohol-detection tests when they report for duty, and soon the devices will be found on store shelves for personal use. The single-use product will sell for $1.99.
Jernigan suggested the Navy may want to eliminate its discounts on alcohol — just as it recently did with tobacco — if it wants to make further strides.
Not all sailors think the new rules will help.
“If people are going to drink, they’re still going to buy it wherever,” Seaman Bryan Free said after buying a bottle of vodka from a Naval Station Norfolk gas station. “So if they take it out of here, it’s not going to do nothing because they’re going to go to the package store right out of base. That’s usually where everybody gets it. So it doesn’t really matter.”
Most of the Navy’s large bases are in urban areas with plenty of convenience and grocery stores nearby.
And in the Navy, on-base housing options are typically limited, leading Free and other sailors commute to work rather than living in barracks.
Robert Parker, a University of California at Riverside sociology professor who has studied the links between alcohol and crime, said restricting on-base alcohol sales should help even if there are places to buy it nearby.
“If you make something like alcohol harder to get, you restrict the hours, you restrict the places it can be bought, then generally consumption goes down in that community or that area because people have a lot of things to do in addition to buying alcohol,” Parker said. “There will be some individuals that will be determined no matter what, and they’ll travel 100 miles to buy a six pack, but most people won’t do that.”