A Philosophical Question About Drinking and Initiative 1183

Initiative 1183, which would end the state’s monopoly on retail sales of hard liquor here in the state of Washington, is the hotly contested issue over here in the Northwest. That is, if you’re a corporation looking to increase your bottom line. From my perspective, there’s little here which is much to be proud of, with Costco and their 13.5 million dollars on one side, and Liquor wholesalers and their 11.5 million dollars on the other. For my money, both of the groups could go to hell, and I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. But if I had to choose, I’d barely side with Costco, only because at least they are aren’t shy their motivations. Sure, the Initiative would give them the upper hand in liquor sales. I-1183 creates a loophole that allows Costco and others of a similar size to bypass distributors and buy liquor tax-free. This is skeevy, but at least they aren’t hiding this fact.

What makes the liquor wholesalers a special brand of skeevy, is how they are dressing up their argument. Essentially they hiding themselves under the guise of an interest group called Protect our Communities, and putting forth an argument that can be distilled to a variation on the “What about the children?” canard.

From their slime-riddled website:

This initiative will authorize—almost overnight—five times as many retailers. That means a nearly 50% increase in consumption, and an even larger increase in problem drinking, according to a Centers for Disease Control analysis.

When one out of every four minors attempting to buy alcohol from private retailers succeeds, it means our emergency first responders will have to confront more senseless drunk driving crashes that result in injury or death.

The problem with the above? Nearly every aspect of their argument is fabricated. From the “Five times as many retailers” to the “50% increase in consumption” to the implied tie that the Centers for Disease Control did a special analysis for the initiative, to “one out of every four minors attempting to buy alcohol from private retailers succeeds” line, each one of these arguments is an extreme stretch of the truth, or an out an out lie.

As an example, the nearly 50% increase of consumption? From Washington State Wire:

he task force released a three-page report earlier this year that recommended against privatization. It wasn’t a study. It was a “finding” based on a review of 21 studies.
The finding was “based on strong evidence that privatization results in increased per-capita alcohol consumption,” the report said.
And it contained a striking statistic. In those studies, alcohol sales jumped by a whopping median figure of 48 percent after privatization.
The thing is, most of those studies had nothing to do with hard liquor. Fifteen dealt with the privatization of wine sales in the U.S. and Canada, a big push in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Two of them had to do with beer sales in Scandinavia. Only four dealt with hard liquor. And the results were all over the map, ranging from an 8 percent decrease to a 305 percent increase – never mind the type of alcohol.
The way that 48 percent figure was calculated was by lumping everything together, as if all forms of alcohol are the same, in all countries, in all time periods.

It’s this cynical manipulation of data and emotions that makes our political system sickening to watch.

But the question that pops up in the Washington State Wire piece that caught my eye was this:

There’s a bigger problem with the consumption argument, says Prof. Antony Davies of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. If consumption increases, what’s the harm?
“If you are finding no deterioration in social measures like DUI fatalities, for example, or underage drinking, then what’s the point? There is no problem with increased consumption unless you want to make the argument that alcohol is bad simply because it is alcohol.”

It’s a great question, one which the No on 1183 people are afraid to answer, due in large part because they are being supported by liquor wholesalers. If liquor consumption increases by 50%, and no harm comes of it, then so what? What is wrong with drinking more, as long as its done responsibly? Washington currently ranks 27th in the country when it comes to underage drinking, and 3rd in DUI fatalities. Does anyone really think that these numbers will get any worse if we privatize liquor via an act that has been accomplished in some variation or another in 29 other states?

The truth is that the liquor wholesalers don’t want to lose money. Their cynical manipulation of the issue into one of faux-prohibitionism is the worst sort of politics, one where hypocrisy is easily found.

(EDITED: added clarification on the Initiative)