Looser Liquor?


In Pennsylvania, you can buy liquor only at the much-derided State Store, where service is poor, selection is small, and hours are inconvenient. But the end of the State Store, and its counterparts in several other states, may be near.

Eighteen states run liquor stores, controlling wholesale or retail distribution. But as states become increasingly strapped for cash, legislators have given serious attention to the notion of privatizing liquor sales. West Virginia sold its liquor stores in 1990 and reaped a onetime windfall of $20 million. Iowa did the same in 1987 and realized a similar profit.

In Ohio—where legislators barely managed to close a two-year budget gap of more than $1.5 billion—Gov. George Voinovich has made liquor-store privatization a priority. Pennsylvania lawmakers are pushing a similar bill. So are legislators in New Hampshire, Vermont, Montana, and North Carolina.

The proposals have met with opposition. The most vocal opponents are public- employee unions afraid of losing jobs if the liquor business goes private.

If liquor stores go private, warns Ed Cloonan, president of Pennsylvania's Independent State Store Union, in a press release, Philadelphia "will have 3,000 outlets selling as much booze as they can, to whomever they can, whenever they can." Pittsburgh, he added, "will have at least 300 more stores selling the number 1 drug in America alongside cheese and crackers and cookies and milk."

But fears that selling liquor and milk together will lead to rampant drunkenness appear misplaced. Since Iowa sold its liquor stores in 1987, alcohol-related injuries and fatalities have remained roughly constant. In fact, per-capita liquor consumption by the adult population in Iowa fell from 1.23 gallons in 1986 to 1.17 gallons in 1989. And states that don't monopolize the sale of liquor, such as New York and New Jersey, rank well below states that do in alcohol-related injury and fatality rates.