The Liquor Control Board of Ontario has banned Dan Aykroyd's Crystal Head vodka, deeming the bottle to be in poor taste. You might object that LCBO merely has declined to stock the vodka, but since the provincial monopoly is the only legal source of distilled spirits in Ontario, that seems to be a distinction without much of a difference. Aykroyd, an Ontario native, is unperturbed by the ban, which he says "kind of makes the product more appealing." A spokesman explains the LCBO's concerns:
The image of the human skull is the thing that's really problematic for us. That's an image that's commonly associated with death. It's especially problematic at a time when there are concerns around binge drinking by younger adults, which in some cases unfortunately has resulted in alcohol poisoning.
If skull-shaped liquor bottles remind people of death from alcohol poisoning, you might think they'd deter excessive consumption. But public health paternalists argue that death-related imagery, which serves as a warning when used by the government, serves as an enticement when used by marketers, practically daring macho adolescents to consume the product. Hence the controversies over Death cigarettes, a Dutch brand sold in black packages featuring a skull and crossbones, and Black Death vodka, a beet-based Icelandic brand with a black label featuring a grinning skull in a top hat.
Whatever the merits of that argument, it's highly improbable that binge-drinking teenagers (or "young adults") will want to lay out $60 for a bottle of Aykroyd's super-premium vodka when they can get much more buzz for their buck from beer (or cheap vodka). The fundamentally aesthetic nature of the LCBO's concerns is apparent from other examples of products it has refused to sell (cited by Globe and Mail columnist Beppi Crosariol), such as liquor with "sexually degrading labels depicting topless women" and "a vodka brand called Kalishnikov that was presented for sale in a bottle shaped like an AK-47 assault rifle." Applied by a provincial agency that serves as the liquor gatekeeper for all of Ontario, these judgments are a form of state-imposed censorship.
Although Crystal Head vodka is widely available in the U.S., we have our own liquor bottle censors, not just in LCBO-like monopolies (the system used by 18 states at the wholesale and/or retail level) but also in a federal agency that can reject labels it deems misleading, "obscene or indecent," or impermissibly connotative of alcoholic strength. In 1992 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms tried to block distribution of Black Death vodka on the grounds that its labeling created the misimpression "that the product is inherently unsafe for human consumption at any level" while simultaneously "mock[ing] the real health risks which may result from the consumption of alcohol by making an obviously false claim about the dangers of alcohol consumption," thereby undermining the surgeon general's printed warnings. As I reported in a 1994 Reason article, the vodka's distributor challenged the decision, prompting a ruling in which a federal judge rejected the agency's self-contradictory rationale and noted that "the government's prohibition of the 'Black Death Vodka' label strikes at the heart of the first amendment." But manufacturers and distributors frequently accept the government's arbitrary labeling dictates (such as a command to make the breasts in the drawing of a nude woman on a wine label less "upthrust" and "evident") rather than undergo the expense and uncertainty of a court challenge.
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