Bills to remix alcohol regulations in states across the country are flowing as freely as the bubbly at a good New Year’s Eve party.
On May 1, for instance, New Jersey will become the 39th state to allow the shipment of wine across the state lines, marking the latest in a series of dramatic series of changes to alcohol regs, as the industry’s retailers and producers band together to loosen longstanding rules in the face of low-proof and unorganized opposition.
The changes are as varied as the wine selection at any corner liquor store:
- In Georgia this past November, 105 out of 127 localities voted to allow Sunday alcohol sales. Since 2002, 15 states have liberalized their Sunday sales laws.
- Since 2004, Texans have gone to the polls repeatedly to turn “dry” localities “wet” – out of 573 alcohol elections, 450 localities have started allowing alcohol, a 78 percent success rate.
- In the past three years, nine states have passed and signed laws allowing small liquor tastings at liquor stores.
- There’s a push to end state monopolies on booze sales. Of the 18 such “control states,” most are considering or have begun some form of privatization.
These examples illustrate an accelerating trend in state legislatures over the past decade: the passage of laws meant to liberalize – opponents say “deregulate” - liquor laws that have their roots dating back to Prohibition.
“It’s driven by increased consumer demand in a modern economy, and somewhat by the state legislatures who have looked at modernizing alcohol laws to increase revenue,” Ben Jenkins, vice president for Government Communications at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, told POLITICO.
Those involved say the shifting views and changing social norms about the availability of alcohol also are partly responsible for what’s happening at the state level.
“We need to come out of the 19th century, and it’s forward thinking,” West Virginia state delegate Bonnie Brown said of liquor law reforms she has promoted in her state.
In the 1980s, while trying to legalize brewpubs, Brown recalled she was accused of making bathtub gin in her backyard during a floor debate.
“As a state, we’ve come around to understanding that the world won’t end if we loosen up some of the liquor laws that we have on the books,” Brown said.
“We live in a different society than the one I grew up in,” explained 65-year-old Georgia state Sen. John Bulloch, who sponsored a law allowing localities to vote to permit Sunday liquor sales. “There wasn’t any alcohol allowed in the house when I was growing up, but in her later years my mother would enjoy a glass of wine. It’s just a different world out there today.”
And revamping alcohol laws is one thing both parties can raise a glass to.
In Georgia, for instance, the Young Democrats of Georgia and the Georgia Federation of Young Republican Clubs banded together to advocate for Sunday sales.
And in December, a bipartisan group, Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Tom Carper (D-Dela.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.), wrote a joint editorial in POLITICO urging, among other reforms, that the U.S. Postal Service be allowed to ship wine and beer.
Also, the BEER Act, which would cut excise taxes on beer producers by half, was introduced by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) with co-sponsorship from a slew of Republicans.
The reforms have been enacted as opposition to loosening liquor laws has fizzled, largely due to a lack of organization and an inability to find a common purpose to rally behind, according to lawmakers and industry sources.
The anti-liquor effort has been stirred up in a handful of states – for example, in Georgia, religious groups have been invovled, while in Connecticut, liquor store owners themselves were against Sunday sales since existing law allowed them a mandated day off with no fear of competition.
”There are people who, for their own philosophical or religious reasons opposed our initiatives, but we didn’t really see much organized push-back,” said Brown, who has backed bills pushing for the legalization of liquor tastings, wine sales in ballparks, and selling alcohol on Election Day.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a influential group that has the heft to oppose liquor law liberalization on a national scale, hasn’t focused on the issue – instead choosing to put its might behind laws directly related to drunk driving and underage drinking.
“Opponents of liquor deregulation don’t have a national coalition, like we have with tobacco. MADD has not really jumped into this liberalization front very much. It’s a national organization, it has a lot of credibility, but they’ve really limited what battles they’re willing to take on,” said James Mosher, an opponent of alcohol deregulation and the co-founder of the Marin Institute for the prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems.
Mosher opposes alcohol deregulation for public health reasons, arguing that it will lead to increased deaths, crime, and problems for youth.
“Our priorities are ignition interlocks for convicted drunk drivers and other proven initiatives for reducing drinking and driving” rather than limiting access to alcohol itself, said MADD spokesperson Anna Duerr.
Others are opposed for reasons of morality, religion, or personal experience with alcoholism, while perhaps the most significant advocacy against the loosening of rules governing the alcohol industry is strictly business related: wholesalers concerned with being squeezed out by producers and retailers, or liquor stores concerned about competition from grocery stores.
Alcohol use in the United States has remained between about 55 percent and 70 percent, peaking at 71 percent in 1978 and at 67 percent in 2010.
But those who oppose liquor law liberalization have no national coalition to unite them, which means an increasingly liberalized alcohol market seems to be the likely trend for the foreseeable future.
“We’re still a very highly regulated industry,” argues Steve Gross, director of state relations for the Wine Institute, an industry advocacy group.
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