SACRAMENTO — As Christmas parties go, the bash the other night by one of this town's biggest public relations firms was among the most elaborate.
The rock band, loud and tight, was shoehorned next to a tiny forest of flocked trees. Hired dancers in fishnet stockings gyrated in unison while the sparkling ice sculpture, surrounded by food-laden tables, slowly dripped into oblivion. And, of course, there was an open bar.
Years ago, that last item would have been of particular interest to James Grenz, then a hard-drinking union ironworker in the construction industry. But not anymore.
There he stood with his wife Susan, sipping a glass of wine, one of only two he would have all night. "I had an hour's drive home. I definitely was not going to leave . . . with a blood alcohol level that would put me in jeopardy," Grenz, 50, said a few days later. "In my 30s, I became more socially conscious about drinking and driving and the potential of actually hurting someone."
Grenz's moderated drinking habits, mirrored by imbibers across the state, have translated into a 79-million-gallon decline in California's annual alcohol consumption over the past decade--enough to fill 3,160 standard swimming pools. The trend offers holiday cheer to health and public safety advocates and has caused beer, wine and liquor marketers to rethink their strategies.
But some experts believe that the slide is reaching an end, and that an explosion in the number of drinking-age youths is just around the corner as the sons and daughters of baby boomers come of age.
As the Christmas to New Year's Eve party season reaches its peak, Californians are consuming 36% less wine per person, 34% less hard liquor and 21% less beer, even as the state's population has steadily grown, according to figures from the Board of Equalization for 1987-88 to 1997-98. The agency's findings are based on excise tax collections paid by beverage manufacturers.
"I think there has been a cultural change regarding how people look at alcohol," said Harvey Chinn, legislative director for the California Council on Alcohol Problems, a group that works against alcohol use.
The powerful mix of interlinked factors driving down alcohol consumption includes the rising importance of a healthful lifestyle, fitness and proper diet--an ethos particularly embraced in California and by aging baby boomers everywhere who once partook freely.
Older and wiser, Elaine Corn, now in her late 40s, can vividly remember the excesses of a youth in Kentucky and Texas when she was a happy participant in the singles bar scene.
"When I drank a lot in my early 20s, I'd sometimes wake up in the morning and smell scotch coming out of my pores," said Corn, today a mellowed Sacramento restaurant owner, wife and mother. With age came new responsibilities and a refinement in lifestyle that includes just a few glasses of good wine a week, she said.
California helped by dropping the blood alcohol content level required for a drunk-driving conviction from 0.10% to 0.08% in 1990, one of 17 states to do so. The penalties for driving under the influence have been stiffened, including laws that allow police to confiscate driver's licenses on the spot. Roadside sobriety checkpoints are common.
The state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has tightened enforcement of laws prohibiting sales to minors. It has put bartenders on notice about the legal and licensing perils of serving drinks to intoxicated customers. And the courts have weighed in, ruling that private party hosts and bar owners can be liable for injuries caused by drunken guests.
Taken together, the cultural, governmental and societal transformation is a giant wet blanket that has dampened consumption.
"The reduction is part of a much greater social awareness that has been built around drunk driving and is moderating the behavior of adults," said Jim Mosher, senior policy advisor at the Marin Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems, in San Rafael. "The three-martini lunch is no longer part of the picture."
The impact of lowered consumption is well documented. The number of people killed in state vehicle accidents involving alcohol dropped from 2,510 in 1988 to 1,072 in 1998, according to the California Highway Patrol. That is the lowest number since 1959, when there were only 40% of the about 21 million drivers today.
The number of people injured in such accidents also declined sharply, from 65,033 to 30,985. And there has been a 31% decline in drunk-driving arrests by the CHP, to the lowest total since 1970.
"When the law began to take drunk driving seriously, the people began to take the law seriously," said Evan Nossoff, a spokesman for the Department of Motor Vehicles. "We have reversed a trend . . . but we are still concerned that 1,100 died 1/8in 1997 3/8. That's still an epidemic, and they are preventable deaths."