Alabama’s Alcohol Regulatory System Is Overdue for Reform
October 20, 2016
Bureaucratic heavy-handedness won’t bring about temperance.
With all the focus on Alabama’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (ABC) cracking down on sidewalk alcohol sales, it might have been easy to miss its stern warning about following alcohol regulations after what happened in Connecticut.
A “national liquor store chain, Total Wine and More, decided to ignore Connecticut’s minimum price law.” But the scofflaws in Connecticut didn’t stop there. They advertised the lower prices. To the dismay of state regulators, other stores announced similar discounts. Apparent pandemonium ensued until Connecticut reached a settlement where “Total Wine agreed to pay the state $37,500 and cease advertising and selling below the state minimum.”
Government imposed price floors should infuriate folks in a red state like Alabama. They’re yet another example of Alabama’s outdated alcohol regulatory scheme begging for reform. While Alabamians must follow current alcohol regulations and laws, it’s clearly time to change them.
Minimum pricing laws are simply relics of prohibitionists who lost the battle to ban alcohol in the 1930s. In fact, Alabama’s ABC currently uses a study, Toward Liquor Control, which was first published in 1933, to justify heavy handed government social controls. The book was out of print for more than 50 years before the Center for Alcohol Policy re-released it in 2011.
Alcohol consumption is legal for adults. Most of us realize the impacts of alcohol, especially in excess. Even Alabama’s ABC admits, “The public is well aware of the devastation heavy drinking entails.” Loss leaders on alcoholic beverages don’t change those realities. If a customer buys two bottles of whiskey during a buy-one-get-one-free promotion, he or she probably isn’t going to radically change preexisting consumption patterns, run home and chug the bottle.
If we’re willing to accept that the state should temper legal products that could have health consequences if used excessively, we don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to government regulation of sugary drinks, cheeseburgers, or those delicious salty french fries.
Here’s the kicker. Even if you’re perfectly fine with state social regulations that make alcohol artificially more expensive, you don’t need the ABC’s bureaucracy to create or enforce those laws.
At this point, there’s literally nothing that the Alabama ABC does that can’t either be handled by the state Legislature or the private sector. ABC doesn’t even have control over its own law enforcement anymore. That’s housed within the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA). Trimming ABC’s needless bureaucracy isn’t asking for booze madness, it’s common sense.
Most states don’t have an ABC anymore, but they do have plenty of laws and taxes related to alcohol distribution, sale and consumption. Those states fare just fine with respect to the social harms Alabama’s ABC allegedly protects against. There’s reason to question whether Alabama’s “control” is producing markedly better results across the board than noncontrol states. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alabama’s drunken driving fatality rate was 67 percent higher than the national average from 2003-2012. As recently as 2014, the CDC determined that Alabama had the 17th highest alcohol-attributed death rate among the states related to excessive alcohol consumption. At a minimum, Alabama’s ABC doesn’t possess some magical skill to achieve alcohol moderation while maximizing revenue generation.
Temperance should be about personal responsibility, not government social controls. It’s past time for Alabama’s legislature to give our alcohol regulatory scheme a much closer look through a modern lens.
Cameron Smith is general counsel and state programs director for the R Street Institute. This op-ed first appeared at AL.com.