Prohibition's Fading Legacy

In recent years, some states have loosened decades-old restrictions on the sale of alcohol. Who that helps, however, is up for debate.
by | June 30, 2016
(FlickrCC/Justin Kern)

Many people celebrated the end of Prohibition in 1933. Gifford Pinchot was not one of them.

In fact, Pinchot, the governor of Pennsylvania, was so upset that he vowed “to discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible.” His efforts were largely successful, with the establishment of a Liquor Control Board that had some of the nation’s strictest rules about alcohol sales. But this month, Pennsylvania passed a law that will, among other things, allow wine in grocery stores.

It’s the latest example of states loosening decades-old legal restrictions on the sale of alcohol. Washington state attracted national attention with a complete privatization of the liquor business in 2012. Since then, Colorado and Tennessee have both moved to allow grocery stores to sell wine and full-strength beer, in 2016 and 2014 respectively. More than 40 states plus Washington, D.C., sell some form of alcohol in general stores.

At the heart of this deregulation is the gradual union of business interests, consumer preferences and the public’s mindset. Large businesses have overwhelmingly replaced mom-and-pop stores and are frustrated by having to follow state-by-state alcohol regulations. Meanwhile consumers accustomed to the convenience of one-stop shops and technology are demanding more accessibility. Then there's the change in attitudes: Alcohol is no longer perceived as the villain it once was and is considered by many just like any other consumer good. In addition, consumption of alcohol has slightly risen from 58 percent in 1939 to 64 percent in 2011.

“Around the country, there’s much more focus on the commercial interests [and] those that consume alcohol than there is on the larger public health and safety issues,” said Steven Schmidt, an analyst at the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association (NABCA).

Yet shifts in attitude don’t translate to swift legislative actions. In Pennsylvania and Colorado, for example, consumer-choice advocates only prevailed after years of fighting -- and even then had to make concessions.

“What we see is the culmination of many years of debate, proposed bills and negotiations,” said Heather Morton, an analyst that tracks the issue for the National Conference of State Legislatures who tracks the issue. “Both sides are extremely passionate about this issue, and they both have strong arguments.”

Proponents claim that deregulation benefits consumers by offering them more options and convenience while also invigorating the business environment and bringing in government revenue in the form of sales taxes. Opponents, on the other hand, worry about the economic well-being of employees who work at state-run alcohol stores and independent business owners. A small group of researchers and analysts, often not directly involved in the debate, would add that public health problems -- such as excessive consumption and retail theft -- might be more prevalent when alcohol becomes more accessible.

In Pennsylvania, state House Speaker Mike Turzai sponsored the new law while acknowledging that it falls short of his ultimate goal: total privatization and abolition of the Liquor Control Board. Most Pennsylvanians support the measure, according to Jay Ostrich, a spokesman for Turzai, and have been voting with their wallets by driving to neighboring states to buy alcohol. Recent polling also suggests that a slight majority favor privatization.

“It became clear that an incremental change toward privatization was within the realm of possibility,” said Ostrich. “[The bill is] the first step of what will be several steps to get people the true privatization they have always wanted.”

The Colorado law is also the product of compromise. The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Pat Steadman, argues that it’s not inconvenient to get alcohol in Colorado, and that letting big supermarkets sell alcohol would be unfair to small liquor stores. But faced with an aggressive campaign for a ballot measure that would immediately allow the sale of wine and liquor in grocery stores, he felt that the transition toward alcohol in grocery stores was inevitable. So he resorted to softening the blow by stretching out the process and only allowing grocers to gradually obtain selling privileges over the span of 20 years.

Still, some businesses don’t want to wait that long. Walmart, Target, King Soopers and Safeway are among the contributors to Your Choice Colorado (YCC), the group spearheading the ballot campaign. YCC said it will continue to fight for its original demands, either through a legal challenge or taking them to the ballot.

The battle won’t end in Colorado. According to the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, at least five states -- Alabama, Florida, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas -- are or have considered increasing alcohol access this year. In Oklahoma, the legislature has passed measures to allow more alcohol in grocery stores, pending voter approval in the November general election.

In Kansas, bills to let counties regulate alcohol sales and let grocery stores sell beer already died, which advocates say is bad for business. Jessica Lucas, a spokesperson for Uncork Kansas, said Kansans travel easily and frequently to other states that have more liberal alcohol laws. If the state refuses to update its alcohol policy to match that of neighboring states, “Kansas will be an island in the middle of progress.”

Amber Tong | Intern