No Booze for You

If state alcohol monopolies were good at serving consumers, they'd have no reason to exist.

Last year the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board installed "wine kiosks" in 31 grocery stores. Last month it shut the machines down for repairs, just in time for the holidays.

The kiosks, a bungled, half-hearted attempt to accommodate consumers who heretofore could buy wine only at government-run stores, encapsulate the dilemma faced by state alcohol monopolies as cash-strapped legislators consider privatizing them to raise money and cut costs in this year of gaping budget deficits. To the extent that the state systems resist privatization by becoming more customer-friendly, they undermine their reason for existing, which is to deter alcohol consumption by making it more expensive, less appealing, and less convenient.

Pennsylvania is one of 18 states that control the distribution of alcoholic beverages and one of 12 that operate retail stores directly or by contract. These systems, established after the repeal of Prohibition, are expressly designed to make alcohol less accessible—not just to minors but to adults who might drink too much.

Joe Conti, chief executive of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB), recently told The New York Times that PLCB employees "aren't incentivized to sell." Unlike consumers facing lethargic clerks who can barely be bothered to ring up their purchases, let alone advise them about the best wine to pair with lamb, Conti considers this indifference a virtue.

Yet in the same interview, Conti bragged that the PLCB, which recently decided to raise its "handling fees" by $1.50 or so a bottle, has "modernized some of its 620 stores and expanded their hours." It now has 75 "premium" outlets that Conti claimed are "as good as you would find anywhere in the country." Not only that, but "he hopes to start a pilot project soon to give them names instead of numbers."

Despite Conti's perestroika, Paul Davies, deputy editorial page editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, reports that "most state stores still look and feel like military commissaries," with unhelpful employees, limited selections, poor inventory management, and high prices. Fear of privatization, which is supported by incoming Gov. Tom Corbett and incoming House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny),  may spur the PLCB to act a little more like a real business, but consumer satisfaction will never be its top priority.

Consider the wine kiosks, which Turzai calls "a silly type of an idea that only a government bureaucracy could come up with." That's literally true, since the machines were invented specifically to satisfy the PLCB's peculiar demands.

Each kiosk holds 1,000 bottles of 53 (count 'em) different wines, which you can buy with a credit card if you swipe your driver's license to prove you are 21 or older, look into a camera monitored by a state employee in Harrisburg to prove you are the person you say you are, and breathe into an alcohol sensor to prove you have not been drinking. The machines operate from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and are closed on Sundays and holidays. They charge shoppers a $1 "convenience fee" for the privilege of buying wine at the supermarket, a freedom that residents of most states take for granted.

The states where wine (and beer) can be purchased along with groceries include Virginia, North Carolina, and Washington, which nevertheless confine the sale of distilled spirits to government stores. This year legislators in all three states are considering abolishing that monopoly, with support from the governor in the first two and possibly in the third as well.

The opposition to these proposals comes from labor unions representing state liquor store workers, anti-alcohol groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and businesses that profit from the lack of competition. In Washington last year, beer and wine companies were the biggest donors to the campaigns against two unsuccessful ballot initiatives that would have privatized sales of distilled spirits.

What all these special interests have in common is a disdain for consumers—which is fitting, because that is the inescapable rationale for state alcohol monopolies.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2011 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Ah, that picture of a dude fellating a state vending machine just for some booze. Embarrassing.

  • Pud||

    The US as a whole is rather backward about alcohol. In Bermuda, liquor, wine and beer are all sold in grocery stores. I spent a year there and didn't see any downfall of society because of it.

  • ||

    Most places in the US you can buy in grocery stores too. It's only in the Libruhl parts of the country where you have to go to special stores, often run by the gubment.

  • Geotpf||

    There are plenty of red states with retarded liquor restrictions, and plenty of blue states with liberal ones. For instance, I live in California, where beer, wine, and hard liquor are sold in grocery stores, gas stations, and convience stores. The only serious restriction is no sales between 2 and 6 am.

  • Juice||

    All my life I took for granted the ability to buy any kind of liquor beer or wine in a grocery store, convenience store, or even a Wal Mart right next to the gun section. Being able to go outside with my beer and drive through daiquiri shops. Just thought all this was no big deal. Then I moved out of Louisiana and thought that everyone else must be crazy.

  • JD||

    As a Yankee (native NY'er), it was quite a surprise to be exposed to on my trips to Louisiana. "Hey, why does this souvenir store sell hard liquor? Oh, because it can..." And once you get used to being able to walk down the street with a drink in your hand, it seems very civilized, and it's hard to go back to anything else.

    Juice's comment is the perfect response to Pud's, BTW - there is no one way "the US as a whole" handles alcohol. Here in NYC, you can buy beer (or some wretched "wine product") at a grocery store, but wine and hard liquor are only at liquor stores.

  • Bradley||

    You think that's bad? Here in Ontario, you can only buy hard liquor from the province-run monopoly store. Beer, however, is sold in one other retail outlet — "The Beer Store", a cartel owned by Labatt, Molson–Coors, and Sapporo. Naturally, their fee structure tends to favour their own brands at the expense of craft brewers'. Wine can be sold at yet another shady cartel store, as well as on the premises of a winery, or in some winery-run stores (but not if the winery was founded after 1987, that's illegal.)

    There is great case study to be written on this, about how government regulation leads to concentration of market power in the hands of a few large players. Unfortunately, no one will write it because monopoly is part of the zeitgeist here, even for people who call themselves economists.

  • pud||

    Thanks,I stand corrected.

  • Bucky||

    shhh! if you keep saying things like that the PaGov is going to just ruin peep shows at my favorite bookstore.

  • Tango Mike||

    They did that a decade ago when they required the removal of all doors on video booths in adult book stores. So I here...

  • Tango Mike||

    Preview. Preview. Preview.

    Here = hear. It's not easy livin' with a brain this small.

  • ||

    Wow, I'm not sure I could concentrate with everyone watching.

  • ||

    The opposition to these proposals comes from labor unions representing state liquor store workers, anti-alcohol groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and businesses that profit from the lack of competition.

    Shocking isn't it? I'm giving the neo-prohibitionists at MADD a pass because, hell, they're neo-prohibitionists. They at least aren't trying to gouge the consumers to line their own pockets.

  • Mr Whipple||

    I pointed out in a thread last night, that PA beer distributors represent an "unholy" alliance between businesses that profit from the lack of competition, and the labor unions they employ.

  • MADD at MADD||

    Fuck MADD. I hope every self-righteous asshole working and volunteering for that organization is killed by a drunk driver.

  • ||

    After reaching the age of 21, I've lived in MI, which has pretty loose liquor laws, and in the dreaded PA. Honestly, this means I spend more money and time in bars in PA than in MI. That's good for the local economy.

    At my local state store, the only person who ever recommends anything or even tries to be nice is the private security guard. From my understanding, you have to commit an actual crime to get fired from the state store, rather than just being a surly bastard, which will get you fired from the private sector.

    Anyway, those kiosks are a horrible idea. Complicated machinery vs. some minimum wage clerk to check IDs? More state employees in dreadfully cash strapped Harrisburg? Those are two things PA doesn't need.

    Anyone from Utah on here? I hear they have even stranger laws.

  • Sean W. Malone||

    "that's good for the local economy"

    Uh... only if you assume that the money and time you and everyone else would save by being able to buy inexpensive booze at a grocery store wouldn't be spent on other things - like movies, bowling, pay per view TV, etc.

    Broken window fallacy thinking strikes again.

  • stuartl||

    Anyone from Utah on here? I hear they have even stranger laws.

    On a trip to Zion National Park in Utah, my wife was served a really lousy drink. When she complained, the server explained that she needed to stir it. Some law that they could serve mixed drinks, but they couldn't mix them.

  • Geotpf||

    Utah's liquor laws are a special brand of crazy, due to the fact that mormons don't drink alcohol. More proof that trying to make this a liberal/conservative thing is pointless.

  • Mainah||

    Heeya in Maine ya can puhchass licka at the grocahree stowah, but it's much cheepah ta go ta tha Nah Hampshah Licka Stowah. Jast dunt git cat crossin the state line ow ya gowin ta jayal.

  • Other Mainer||

    I disagree. Liquor laws in Maine are great, despite a little totalitarianism from individual towns with their license process. People buy in NH because of the lack of sales tax.

    That is a wonderfully written impression of how we talk, though.

  • Mainah||

    It's mowah than just tha sales tax.
    It's tha licka tax and tha wine tax too.

    http://www.taxfoundation.org/taxdata/show/245.html

    Allen's Coffee Brandy is a whole five bucks cheepah in New Hampshah!

    Yessah!

  • PA Drinker||

    Not all state store employees are lethargic. In fact, there's a girl at my local state store that is quite cute and energetic. I am much more incentivised to buy from her than to give a machine a blow job.

    That being said, it would be much better if she was working in a private liquor store instead of the PLCB.

  • ||

    Liqour in front, poker in the rear??

  • T||

    Louisiana is really the only sane state when it comes to alcohol purchases. There's nothing more annoying than doing your grocery shopping on a Sunday morning and having to put the beer back because it's not noon yet when you hit the checkout.

  • CrackertyAssCracker||

    I don't like the sunday-noon thing either. But really, what are you doing up and out of the house before noon on a Sunday? That has affected me once in my whole life. Then I had to wait 10 extra minutes before I could get a bloody mary.

  • Bill||

    Think Man!! How about when you are having people over to watch an NFL game at noon and you need extra beer and some wine coolers?

    I lived in Missouri before they got rid of their blue laws in the early 80's (as I recall) and when they allowed malls to actually remain open on a Sunday that was a big positive. I lived in PA which had really stupid laws. I lived in Wisconsin which had the noon thing on Sunday which was occasionally a pain (see NFL game above). But in WI, beer is food and not taxed in the grocery store. I now live in New Orleans which has a lot of laws that make sense and work. You can drink on the street as long as it is not in a glass bottle and you are not bothering anyone else.

  • ||

    "beer is food"

    That, sir, is a sentiment I can get behind!

  • Geotpf||

    Louisiana is not the only state with liberal laws in this fashion. Like I've stated before, California only restricts alcohol sales between 2 and 6 am.

  • ||

    Please let me know the location of CA's drive thru Daquiri stores.
    I still remember these when I visited LA in 1993.

  • Jay||

    I've seen drive through liquor stores in Sacramento.

  • Rhywun||

    I didn't know PA was so depressing. As much liquor as I buy, I'm sure as hell glad I buy it here in NY.

  • ||

    Despite how backwards PA's alcohol laws are, I will say I LOVED one aspect of the distributors when I lived in Philly in the late 90s (dunno if its changed since then).

    The distributor near my apartment delivered!!! Call them up and order a case of yuengling, and it was there in less than an hour.

  • Homer Simpson||

    But I want it NOW!

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  • ||

    The discussion over the last couple of days of Pennsylvania’s alcohol laws explains the strange thing I saw there this last summer. I was driving through that was completely taken aback by several signs for BYOB strip joints. It was a concept I could not wrap my head around.

  • JD||

    We have those in Texas too. Strip clubs can only be all-nude if they don't sell alcohol, but there is no problem with bringing your own booze.

  • ICGAMBLERS||

    Same in Iowa, BYOB for full nude (some have showers on stage)

  • ||

    I live in Massachusetts, we have lots of liquor stores and many stores sell beer wine and hard liquor that are just "convenience" stores. But with adding another middle man and the socialist state taxes on alcohol the prices are high by anyone's standard.

    Just a short drive away is NH and the state run liquor stores have a good selection and prices are any place from 25 to 50% cheaper than my locals are. That said they have limited hours and for the most part limited specialty booze.

    The "regular" stores in NH can sell beer and wine and again the prices are in general better in NH than back in Mass.

    Guess what I am saying is NH has it about right if the Government is going to "run" the store. And from the sounds of it most of the rest of the states that sell the liquor in a monopoly state store don't.

  • ||

    I've lived in MA and PA and I can't decide which is worse. Xenophobic Massholes require a MA drivers license to purchase booze...wouldn't even take my passport, like a MA drivers license is some kind of ironclad document impervious to fraud. The PA situation has had one positive result: a thriving beer culture since you need to drink so much of it after you buy a case.

  • ||

    Jeez, I was wondering why it was so difficult to get beer in PA. You'd think someone at the many stores I called looking for beer would've mentioned a thing like that.
    But what I don't understand is, why would beer and wine companies be against privatizing sales. I mean, wouldn't more outlets mean more sales?

  • ||

    Jeez, I was wondering why it was so difficult to get beer in PA. You'd think someone at the many stores I called looking for beer would've mentioned a thing like that.
    But what I don't understand is, why would beer and wine companies be against privatizing sales. I mean, wouldn't more outlets mean more sales?

  • Jonathan||

    Yes, but also an opening for more competition. With the monopoly stores, the booze companies establish a comfortable supplier relationship and the already "slow to respond to consumer demand" monopoly stores are disincentivised even further toward broadening their product line.

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  • ||

    Like all civil service employees the state store clerks get to retire after twenty years with a nice pension and great medical package so the citizens get to keep paying for their booze.

  • ||

    In Pennsylvania another industry that does not want to see privitazation is the trucking industry. They get fat contracts to haul liquor and other beverages from the distillers. You may also notice that they are big campaign contributors and it is not unusual to see the biggest contributor getting awarded the hauling contract.

  • ||

    I have some serious questions about the article. If you are required to take a breathalyzer test in order to purchase wine and there is a State Employee responsible for verifying your identity (via camera), is the state keeping records of the following:
    - Number and quantity of wine purchases
    - Pass/Fail of breathalyzer
    - Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) recorded by breathalyzer?
    This seems to open up a huge can of worms for the state. If someone fails the breathalyzer, can they be arrested for public drunkeness. What if they failed and then get in a car accident? Does the state have any liability because they knew this person was drunk and where they were?

    I can also envision a case where someone gets in a car wreck or is arrested for DUI and an attorney subpoenas the kiosk records to establish a pattern of purchases or BAC results.

  • BuzzBeer||

    As a former PA liquor store employee, I cannot find the words to convey how boring the job is. You can only face the merchandise and look through the book of drivers' licenses of the US so many times in one day. I worked there for three months, and was lucky enough to find another job. I had to take the Civil Service test to get the job. What a joke. The manager at my store told me he had never had anyone with such a high score. On a test with basic math skills and some "what would you do if" questions. He also used to get angry with me because my drawer was never off. How could I count wrong when I had one customer every half hour? Mind numbingly boring. Some days I wish I could have a day like that at my current job, but I don't know how people can spend their entire careers at the liquor store. Maybe that's why so many of them seem brain dead.

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