It's time for a change. But is it coming?
It’s looking like a banner year for booze in Philly. State lawmakers and the Liquor Control Board (LCB) plan to take a radical step to improve our access to alcohol. But don’t get too excited. The plan doesn’t include six-pack sales in grocery stores. It doesn’t allow for independent wine and liquor stores. It doesn’t even add more state-run stores, or longer hours of operation or any change in the liquor laws that Philadelphians would actually appreciate. Instead, lawmakers and the LCB bring you the weirdest idea in retail history: Wine vending machines. Starting in May, the state liquor authority will install 100 wine kiosks throughout Pennsylvania.
The plan, apparently designed to sell as little product as possible, promises to deliver a bizarre customer experience. Patrons use a touch screen to select the wine they want and blow into a breathalyzer to confirm their sobriety (get used to the phrase “state-store cold sore”). Then, the customer must swipe his or her ID, and be photographed by a camera connected to a communication center in Harrisburg, where a state LCB employee can confirm the person’s identity.
LCB’s spokesman Nick Hays believes the machines will “increase consumer convenience and provide better … service.” Surely customers would be better served by having more full-service stores than experimenting with so-far untested and rather creepy technology. The LCB, which runs the state's wine and spirits stores and directly employs all 4,000 clerks and managers throughout the system, proclaims the initiative “unprecedented,” and Pennsylvania will indeed be the first state in the nation to sell wine out of a vending machine.
But the idea is unprecedented mainly because it’s bad. Japan is the only country in the world where alcohol is widely purchased from vending machines, and even there, the technology is subject to a voluntary ban by liquor storeowners due to the chronic inability to prevent abuse by minors. Apart from the intrusion and privacy concerns the plan raises, it seems like a commercial train wreck in the making.
The wine vending machine serves as the perfect metaphor for the failures of Pennsylvania’s Capone-era alcohol policy: An absurd, patronizing and pointless rip-off that by rights should be blown up. If you look hard at our government-dominated system for controlling the sale of booze in Philly and across the state, there are only cons. Pennsylvania’s liquor laws and liquor-retail monopoly deliver none of the benefits—politicians promise cost (the state gets great bulk discounts) and public gain (profits are supposed to come back to the state, for the good of the people)—and do not prevent the abuses—safety (preventing sales to minors or intoxicated drivers)—they claim to protect us from.
Drinkers know how difficult it is to purchase booze in Philadelphia, especially for those without cars or a yen for long walks. Many neighborhoods, including Fishtown, Logan, Cedarbrook, West Oak Lane and Bridesburg have no wine and spirits store at all.
If you’ve ever asked yourself: “Is it harder to buy booze here than anywhere else in nation?” The answer is a loud yes. There are 618 state-run stores in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. To put that number in perspective, there are more wine and spirits stores in the city of Chicago than there are in our entire state, despite Pennsylvania having four times as many people. A recent paper by two Wharton professors says Pennsylvania has the fewest liquor retailers per person than any state in the nation. We even have fewer stores today than we did in 2006.
Pennsylvanians love a stiff drink just as much as the next patriot—the National Institutes for Health says the average Quaker Stater drinks 2.2 gallons of alcohol each year, only slightly less than the national average of 2.3 gallons. So why on earth does Pennsylvania have so few places to buy a bottle? Well, it’s not a matter of taste. The simple truth is our government wanted it that way … in 1933.
When Prohibition was repealed, state lawmakers scrambled to write their own restrictive laws on alcohol. Like many others, Pennsylvania adopted a strict control system, in which the state retained the sole right to retail wines and spirits. The legislature passed a paternalistic liquor code (still on the books largely unchanged) that openly declared its intent to “prohibit forever the open saloon.”
It also created the LCB as a civil agency responsible for both enforcing the code and selling liquor for profit (two responsibilities seemingly at odds with one another).
Over time, most states abandoned or reformed these monopolies. Harrisburg never did. Today, several states including Pennsylvania and Utah have monopolies that remain, but even Utah doesn't use our quirky state-store setup.
Philadelphians have no legal way of avoiding the system. If you buy alcohol in Jersey or Delaware and bring it back to the Keystone state, by law you risk up to 90 days in jail—you can’t even arrange to pay the state tax. Supporters of the LCB claim that our vintage setup actually works pretty well and represents a great trade-off. Though customers sacrifice the convenience enjoyed by drinkers elsewhere, the system’s boosters insist, there are benefits that outweigh the disadvantages. The big three usually cited are safety, cost and public gain. If delivered right, it sounds like a powerful argument for sticking with the status quo.
Sadly, it’s all bunk.
None of these alleged benefits stand up to serious scrutiny. Take the safety argument. Wendell Young, president of UFCW Local 1776, the union which represents about 2,400 state-store employees, states passionately that “the control factor is phenomenal,” and touts the state stores’ safety record. “In more than five years … there have only been two cases of wine and spirit employees serving minors.” Yet Pennsylvania teenagers have been getting drunk pretty successfully since Prohibition, regardless of who sells it, or how. According to the National Surrey on Drug Use and Health, a government-funded project, Pennsylvania’s underage drinking rate remains above average for the 50 states (22nd out of 51) despite the most restrictive system in the country, and that rate hasn't changed much in recent years.
Likewise, state-store supporters brag about their record of never selling to intoxicated drivers. Yet an awful lot of Pennsylvanians still manage to kill people while drunk behind the wheel. Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show the Commonwealth remains above average at 15th in DUI fatalities per mile driven. Well below average at wasting people while wasted are Illinois drivers (32nd), despite the fact their solemn right to buy limitless beer, wine and liquor in local supermarkets.
That doesn’t mean that Illinoisans are better people than us or that our teenagers are inherently less responsible than the typical American youths. It simply shows that personal decisions about alcohol are weird, cultural and unpredictable, and that there’s probably no hard-and-fast relationship between the systems we use to sell ourselves alcohol, and how individuals decide to use or abuse it.
A 2009 report by the Commonwealth Foundation showed that in two states that deregulated their liquor retail systems (Iowa in 1987 and West Virginia in 1990), total alcohol consumption actually fell after the law change. Believing that a one-size-fits-all bureaucracy can make our consumption of alcohol any safer or rarer is a fantasy, and the numbers show it.
In case you missed it this weekend, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board installed and opened its first Philly-area wine vending machine. It’s in Drexel Hill, the Fresh Grocer, 5000 State Road. We know buying wine from a machine is the 4th mark of the beast (the first was soda vending machines, the second was snacks, third [...]
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