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Since the passage of the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933 and the end of Prohibition, Americans’ attitude toward alcohol consumption has changed drastically, and states have wrestled with policy regulating alcohol. South Carolina is no exception.

Over the past decades, debates have grown particularly heated over South Carolina alcohol policy, with some believing there is a need to tighten alcohol regulation and some believing in a need to loosen restrictions.

The purpose of this report is to examine the accessibility of alcohol in South Carolina and the effects alcohol consumption has on the Palmetto State.


Number of Alcohol Permits Issued in South Carolina. The South Carolina Department of Revenue[1] oversees the regulation of alcohol permits in South Carolina. Any restaurant or business that wishes to sell alcohol must first obtain permission from SC DOR. Several categories of licenses exist:

  • Off Premises Beer and Wine Licenses[2] simply authorizes the sale of beer and wine “to-go.” Businesses can apply for a 7 Day Week Off Premises Beer and Wine License in counties and cities that have approved the sale of alcohol on Sundays.
  • On Premises Beer and Wine Licenses[3] allow businesses and restaurants to sell alcohol for consumption on licensed premises and also allow beer and wine “to-go.” 7 Day On Premises Licenses can be sought in counties and cities that have approved Sunday alcohol sales.
  • Liquor by the Drink Licenses[4] are only issued to restaurants, hotels and motels. These licenses authorize the sale and consumption of alcoholic liquors on the licensed premises.
  • Retail Liquor Store Licenses[5] allow retail locations to sell alcoholic liquors containing up to 21 percent alcohol by volume “to-go” only.

As one might expect, the number of licenses has ebbed and flowed over the years. 938 Retail Liquor Store Licenses were authorized in 1970, fell to under 700 in 2000 and spiked back up to 952 in 2017. Between 2010 and 2017, Retail Liquor Store Licenses have increased by 12 percent.

It’s important to point out that the number of Retail Liquor Store Licenses could increase exponentially thanks to a recent ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court in the case Retail Services & Systems, Inc., d/b/a Total Wine & More v. South Carolina Department of Revenue and ABC Stores of South Carolina. The ruling would allow discount retailers such as Walgreens, big box stores such as Walmart and even grocery stores such as Publix to sell hard liquor. South Carolina is home to thousands of these stores, opening the possibility for far easier and cheaper access to hard liquor in the Palmetto State.

This ruling will stand if the legislature does not act to clarify the statute as required by the Court.

On and Off Premises Beer and Wine Licenses have seen a similar pattern. In 1970, 8,498 licenses were issued. Then the number of licenses fell to 7,701 in 2000 before rising to 10,311 licenses in 2017. From 8,954 licenses in 2010 to 10,311 in 2017, total On and Off Premises Beer and Wine Licenses have grown 15 percent.

More than any other category, Sale and Consumption or Liquor by the Drink Licenses have grown the most since 1970. 3,833 licenses were approved in 2017, a 346 percent increase from the 858 licenses authorized in 1970. From 2010, license totals have grown by 580, an increase of 17.8 percent.

Overall, licenses fell in the 1990s and 2000s and have since reached all-time highs.

Number of Liquor Stores and Bars Per Capita. When compared to other states, South Carolina ranks 39th overall in the number of bars per person with one bar for every 12,855 South Carolinians.[6] Though the total number of liquor stores are lower, South Carolina ranks slightly higher in the liquor store category – with one liquor store for every 21,663 South Carolinians, the Palmetto State comes in at 32nd overall.[7]

Those rankings place South Carolina third highest in the number of bars and fourth highest in the concentration of liquor stores per capita in the South (this region includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee).

When it comes to bars per household, only six cities in the United States rank above Myrtle Beach, and none of them are located in the South. In fact, the next closest cities from the South are Wilmington, NC (#12) and Panama City, FL (#32).[8]

Several South Carolina cities also rank high in the number of liquor stores per household. Hilton Head Island placed 56th with Myrtle Beach following closely at 60th.[9] Only one city in the South owned a higher ranking. Panama City, FL finished 39th, giving South Carolina two of the top three cities in the South in number of liquor stores per household. Further, South Carolina claims three of the six Southern cities in the top 100 (Charleston ranked 85th).[10]


Alcohol Legislation Signed into Law. Alcohol laws in South Carolina have changed drastically over the past two decades, leading many to question the quality of laws passed. For example, a bill introduced several years ago intended to streamline the alcohol permitting process for non-profits, but inadvertently took out eligibility for everyone else. Sections of other pieces of legislation that passed in the House drew criticism from supporters of looser alcohol laws because they were so poorly drafted. Evidence suggests that the arbitrary and constant tinkering of South Carolina’s alcohol policy has led to poorly constructed and confusing policy.

The number of alcohol related legislation to become law should also be highlighted. Since the beginning of Legislative Session 118 (2009-10), 124 pieces of legislation coded “alcohol and alcoholic beverages” have been introduced at the South Carolina Statehouse, and 25 of those bills were signed into law.[11]

The expansionary effects of those bills include:

  • Authorizing the establishment of micro-distilleries.[12]
  • Allowing non-profits to sell alcohol at events[13] and allowing non-profits to accept donations of alcohol.[14]
  • Providing retail liquor stores the ability to hold samplings of liquor conducted by the store itself.[15]
  • Allowing open containers of alcohol to be transported in vehicles in a place other than the trunk.[16]
  • Permitting homeowner associations to sell alcohol.[17]
  • No longer requiring wineries in the state to sell wine made from a majority of its own fruit.[18]
  • Allowing liquor stores to open on general election days for the first time.[19]
  • Allowing “Motorsports Entertainment Complexes,” “Tennis Specific Complexes” and “baseball complexes”[20] to apply for licenses to sell alcohol for any occasion on any day of the week.[21]
  • Authorizing on-premises licenses for the consumption of alcohol within 300 feet of a school, playground or church.[22]
  • Allowing wineries, importers and retail stores to host sales on their alcoholic products.[23]
  • Requiring a person or store permitted and licensed to sell alcohol to maintain liability coverage of at least $1 million.[24]
  • Introducing brewpubs in South Carolina.[25]

Changes before Legislative Session 118 (2009-10) include:

  • Legalizing higher alcohol content craft beers and wines.
  • Legalizing wine, beer and liquor samplings.
  • Allowing drinks to be mixed using larger bottles (“free pour”) rather than mini-bottles.
  • Allowing brewpubs and micro-distilleries to conduct samplings and sell in bulk.
  • Relaxing restrictions on shipping of some alcoholic liquors.
  • Allowing lottery tickets to be sold in liquor stores.
  • Counties and cities may hold referendums to allow Sunday sales for restaurants and other “On Premises” sales and convenience stores and other “Off Premises” sales.

Deciphering which laws blast through the protective guardrails historically established around alcohol and those that simply modernize the code make it tricky to decide their effectiveness. “Free pour” has been considered by many as a good change, as research shows that drinks made with mini bottles were often stronger than those made from the larger bottles now legal. On the other hand, making beer and wine more accessible at fairs, festivals and sporting events will likely change those events forever.

Thankfully, the pace at which legislation concerning alcohol is being introduced and signed into law seems to have slowed. From 1999-2008, only one legislative session saw fewer than 40 alcohol bills introduced. Since 2008 to present, only one legislative session has seen more than 30 alcohol bills introduced.

Lobbyists and legislators continue to push for more and more access, however. Well-funded lobbyists and well-connected legislators work the statehouse every session. Proposed changes would allow wine tastings in grocery stores, allow South Carolina soldiers to drink even if they are underage, allow liquor stores to open on Sunday, allow food to be sold in liquor stores (and presumably liquor in grocery stores, allow drive-through liquor sales and allow beer sales at college football and baseball games.

Important to the effectiveness of alcohol legislation is effectiveness of the enforcer of South Carolina’s alcohol policies – the South Carolina Department of Revenue (SC DOR). For years, SC DOR has been short-staffed and is constantly being forced to adjust to ever-changing policy emanating from the South Carolina General Assembly. In many cases, the meaning of legislation is unclear and the Department is being left to use its judgment.

Blue Laws in South Carolina. South Carolina no longer has a statewide ban on Sunday alcohol sales; instead, counties decide if they will allow the sale of alcohol on Sundays. Currently, sixteen South Carolina counties have repealed blue laws entirely. Those counties include Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton, Dorchester, Georgetown, Horry, Jasper, Kershaw, Marion, Newberry, Oconee, Orangeburg, Richland, Saluda and York. Four additional counties have partially repealed blue laws, but still restrict convenience and grocery stores from selling beer and wine on Sunday – Greenwood, Lancaster, Lexington and Spartanburg counties.[26]

It remains illegal to sell hard liquor on Sundays in South Carolina.


Alcohol Consumption Per Capita. Relative to the United States as a whole, South Carolinians consume alcohol at a lesser rate.[27] The average American drank 2.32 gallons of alcohol (beer, wine, spirits) in 2015, but South Carolinians drank an average of 2.25 gallons, falling 0.7 gallons below the national average. Since 2000, South Carolina has only been found below the national average for the last four years on record – 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Among Southern states, however, per capita alcohol consumption in the Palmetto State remains high. South Carolina ranked third in the South in 2015 for the amount of alcohol consumed per person. Only Florida and Louisiana ranked higher than South Carolina. Residents of both Arkansas and Georgia drank an average of less than 2 gallons of alcohol in 2015. The average per capita drinking in the South for 2015 was pegged at 2.24 gallons, placing South Carolina just above the region’s average. In fact, South Carolina has been above the region’s average every year since 2000.

2015 marked the lowest amount consumed per capita in South Carolina since 2000, with the highest amount being 2.44 gallons consumed in 2006. But, binge drinking is on the rise in the Palmetto State.[28] In 2015, South Carolina ranked 11th for the least amount of binge drinkers, but has since risen become the 25th in 2017.[29] South Carolina’s 2017 ranking ties it with Louisiana for having the most binge drinkers in the South. Besides South Carolina and Louisiana, only two other Southern states fall outside the top ten (North Carolina and Florida).[30]

Drunk Driving and Drunkenness in South Carolina. Over the past decade, South Carolina has consistently ranked as one of the worst states in the number of drunk driving deaths. As of 2015, South Carolina ranked as the fifth most dangerous state, with a high number of alcohol-related driving fatalities and Driving Under the Influence (D.U.I.) arrests.[31]

With 44 percent of all traffic fatalities in 2013 being drunk driving fatalities, South Carolina had the highest percentage of traffic deaths due to alcohol impairment in the nation.[32] The percentage fell to 33 percent in 2016.[33] The number of deaths due to alcohol impairment fell by 9 deaths from 2013 to 2016, though, indicating that the percentage only decreased because a smaller overall total of fatal car crashes occurred.

The number of D.U.I. arrests in South Carolina has swung dramatically since 2000. South Carolina saw a peak in 2010 with 19,314 (41.76 per 10,000 inhabitants).[34] The low point came in 2006 when 8,542 arrests were made.[35] 17,781 (36.3 per 10,000 inhabitants) arrests were made in 2015.[36]

The number of South Carolinians arrested for Drunkenness plateaued in 2008 when 12,701 (28.35 per 10,000 inhabitants) arrests were made.[37] 2015 marked the lowest number of arrests since 2000 – only 9,409 (19.2 per 10,000 inhabitants) arrests occurred.[38]

Underage Drinking in South Carolina. South Carolina finds itself ranked near the middle of the pack nationally when it comes to underage drinking. 2015 data reveals that 55.8 percent of high school students in South Carolina admitted to having tried alcohol.[39] 17.8 percent of those students shared that they had tried alcohol before they turned 13 years old.[40]

In the South in 2015, South Carolina fared better. South Carolina owned the lowest percentage of high schoolers who drank alcohol in the South (no data is available for Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and Tennessee in this category).[41] Only North Carolina and Florida had a lower percentage of high school students who drank alcohol before the age of 13 years old.[42]

But, the South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services considers underage drinking one of the Palmetto State’s most troubling health issues, and sites the following facts as evidence:[43]

  • An estimated 85 South Carolinians under 21 die each year from alcohol use.
  • Underage drinking costs South Carolina $1 billion per year – $2,309 for each young person in South Carolina.
  • 40 percent of ninth through 12th-graders in South Carolina drank alcohol in the past month.
  • In 2010, youth under 21 consumed an estimated 12 percent of the alcohol consumed in South Carolina.
  • Hard liquor, not beer or wine, is now the most popular drink of choice among high school students.
  • One in nine high school students has driven after drinking in the past month.

Alcohol Use Among South Carolina College Students. No doubt, a high volume of drinking among college students can be considered underage drinking which adds to an already problematic issue that at least two South Carolina universities have seen.

Among all four-year, non-profit colleges and universities with more than 10,000 students, Coastal Carolina University recorded the “highest total number of reported per-capita liquor law violations in the United States at 1,070”[44] according to a recent report. The number of violations has risen by 53 percent between 2010 and 2015, suggesting the problem will continue to grow.[45]

The University of South Carolina can be found on the list of South Carolina colleges and universities with alcohol issues, as well. From 2015 to 2016, the number of USC students hospitalized for alcohol-related conditions skyrocketed by 158 percent.[46] University of South Carolina students also exceed the national average in almost every category of drinking[47] – pregaming, doing shots, choosing a drink containing more alcohol, chugging alcohol, blacking out, passing out, having a hangover and performing poorly on an assignment due to drinking. As expected, several issues arise because of the role of alcohol, not the least of these is USC’s higher percentage of sexual assaults linked to alcohol use.[48]


Imagining South Carolina’s future if alcohol continues to become more accessible isn’t difficult to conjure. One can simply view Europe’s relationship with alcohol to understand.

Europe owns the highest alcohol consumption rate in the world,[49] according to a report released in 2011 by the World Health Organization (WHO). The data reveals that not only does the European Union (EU) consume the most alcohol in the world, that consumption has led to significantly higher alcohol-related deaths. Worldwide, the alcohol-related death rate stands at 3.8 percent of all deaths, but in the EU the rate is an astonishing 12 percent. These alcohol related deaths include everything from alcohol poisoning and other health issues, to drunk-driving deaths.

Europe’s example comes as a warning to South Carolina. Alcohol accessibility and consumption in the EU has led to a major health crisis. The Palmetto State could follow suit if the push to radically increase access succeeds.


Alcohol accessibility and consumption in South Carolina continues to rise. More bars and liquor stores can be found in the Palmetto State, bringing with them consequences – both new businesses and revenue, but also negative effects. The high rates of binge drinking, college-age drinking and drunk driving remain an alarming problem, and the data suggests that these problems will not be improved by increasing availability to alcohol.

Additionally, a high volume of often poorly written legislation has made enforcement of South Carolina’s alcohol policy difficult for the South Carolina Department of Revenue. More care must be given to crafting coherent, logical alcohol policy. In fact, after the restoration of the three-store limit on liquor store ownership, an immediate freeze on new alcohol legislation should be enacted until South Carolina is out of danger from the threat of over-access.

Can South Carolina hold its liquor? The data suggests no. Let’s do something about it.

This publication was authored and designed by Briley Hughes.


[1] South Carolina Department of Revenue. (n.d.). Retrieved March 08, 2018, from

[2] South Carolina Department of Revenue. Off-Premises Beer and Wine. (n.d.). Retrieved March 08, 2018, from

[3] South Carolina Department of Revenue. On-Premises Beer and Wine. (n.d.). Retrieved March 08, 2018, from

[4] South Carolina Department of Revenue. Business (Restaurant & Hotel/Motel) Liquor by the Drink. (n.d.). Retrieved March 08, 2018, from

[5] South Carolina Department of Revenue. (n.d.). ​Retail Liquor Store. Retrieved March 08, 2018, from

[6] The Forum of Fargo-Moorehead. (2013, July 12). Booze in the USA. Retrieved March 08, 2018, from!/vizhome/shared/RNZPPC2YJ

[7] Ibid

[8] McLaughlin, R. (2015, September 24). America’s Best Beer Towns for Celebrating Oktoberfest. Retrieved March 08, 2018, from

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] South Carolina Legislature Online. (n.d.). Retrieved March 08, 2018, from

[12] H3452. (2009, February 5). Retrieved March 08, 2018, from

[13] H4516. (2010, February 3). Retrieved March 08, 2018, from H4516. (n.d.). Retrieved March 08, 2018, from

[14] S114. (2017, January 10). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from

[15] H4572. (2010, February 17). Retrieved March 08, 2018, from

[16] H3249. (2011, January 11). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from

[17] H3295. (2011, January 12). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from

[18] H3630. (2011, February 8). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from

[19] H5098. (2012, March 28). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from

[20] S334. (2017, January 31). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from

[21] H3626. (2013, February 27). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from

[22] H4399. (2014, January 14). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from

[23] H5245. (2016, April 20). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from

[24] S116. (2017, January 10). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from

[25] S275. (2017, January 24). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from

[26] Matney, M. (2016, July 18). Where in SC can you buy beer and wine on Sunday? Retrieved March 8, 2018, from

[27] Haughwout, S. P., B.S., & Slater, M. E., Ph.D. (2017, April). Apparent Per Capita Alcohol Consumption: National, State, and Regional Trends, 1977-2015 (Rep. No. #108). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website:

[28] United Health Foundation. (2017, December). America’s Health Ranking 2017 (Rep.). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from United Health Foundation website:

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid

[31] Jansen, B. (2016, April 28). These are the most dangerous states for drunken driving. Retrieved March 8, 2018, from

[32] U.S. Department of Transportation. (n.d.). Traffic Safety Facts 2013 (Rep.). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website:

[33] U.S. Department of Transportation. (2017, October). Traffic Safety Facts: 2016 Data (Rep.). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website:

[34] State Law Enforcement Division, & South Carolina Department of Public Safety. (n.d.). Crime in South Carolina 2010 (Rep.). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from State Law Enforcement Division website:

[35] State Law Enforcement Division. (n.d.). South Carolina Arrest Data (Rep.). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from State Law Enforcement Division website:

[36] State Law Enforcement Division, & South Carolina Department of Public Safety. (n.d.). Crime in South Carolina 2015 (Rep.). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from State Law Enforcement Division website:

[37] State Law Enforcement Division, & South Carolina Department of Public Safety. (n.d.). Crime in South Carolina 2008 (Rep.). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from State Law Enforcement Division website:

[38] State Law Enforcement Division, & South Carolina Department of Public Safety. (n.d.). Crime in South Carolina 2015 (Rep.). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from State Law Enforcement Division website:

[39] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2016, June 10). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance — United States, 2015 (Rep. No. 6). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from Center for Disease Control and Prevention website:

[40] Ibid

[41] Ibid

[42] Ibid

[43] Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services. (n.d.). Underage Drinking in South Carolina. Retrieved March 8, 2018, from

[44] Boschult, C. (2017, May 31). Study: Coastal Carolina reports the highest rate of alcohol crime in the country. Retrieved March 8, 2018, from

[45] Ibid

[46] McPherson, D. (2016, November 11). Alcohol-related hospitalizations rise dramatically at USC. Retrieved March 8, 2018, from

[47] AlcoholEdu. (2016, June 23). AlcoholEdu Impact Report 2015-2016 – University of South Carolina (Rep.). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from AlcoholEdu website:

[48] Ibid

[49] World Health Organization. (2011). Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health (Rep.). Retrieved March 8, 2018, from World Health Organization website: