Over the past year, several commentaries have promoted wine sales in grocery stores. I wanted to offer the public safety and public health perspective on the grocery store sales debate.
Oklahoma has 630 liquor stores, or one for every 5,800 people in the state. If every retail outlet that currently sells cigarettes were also allowed to sell wine, it would add another 4,000 retail outlets in the state.
From a public safety standpoint, the more accessible you make alcoholic beverages, the less control you have over their sale. And the less control you have over those sales, the more likely they will end up in the hands of minors and overintoxicated people.
Are Oklahomans willing to sacrifice public safety and health for a little more convenience? Before pursuing a constitutional amendment to permit wine sales in grocery stores, it is important to consider the larger societal ramifications that would likely accompany such a change.
A recent study by Public Action Management, titled “The Dangers of Alcohol Deregulation: The United Kingdom Experience,” suggests that deregulating liquor laws to expand the number of permissible activities, including grocery store sales, can have a devastating impact on the welfare of its citizens. The full report can be read at http://www.pamaction.com.
According to the study, the UK experienced significant increases in the number of deaths, serious illnesses, violence related to alcohol and teen alcohol consumption since deregulation of its liquor laws began in the 1960s.
For example, deaths caused by liver cirrhosis rose dramatically, from less than 10 deaths per 100,000 in Scotland in 1955, to more than 40 deaths per 100,000 in 2001. By comparison, only 12.3 males and 6.4 females in the U.S. died from liver cirrhosis in 2001.
UK teens are now twice as likely to become intoxicated than U.S. teenagers. Among 16-17-year-olds, the number of emergency room visits involving alcohol-related causes rose 95 percent in the UK from 2002 to 2007 alone.
The study identifies grocery stores, especially large supermarket chains, as a primary culprit behind the epidemic. These stores use alcoholic beverages as “loss leaders” to drive their food sales. “This model calls for high volume sales at low prices with heavy promotion,” according to the report. “The business model used by the big-box chains makes it possible to offer large quantities of cheap alcohol.”
At some point, Oklahomans may be asked to decide how accessible they wish to make alcohol and what costs they are willing to pay for that increased accessibility in terms of drunk driving fatalities, teen consumption, alcohol-related deaths and illnesses.
The debate over wine in grocery stores is unlikely to abate soon, especially while more and more national grocery store chains turn to alcoholic beverage sales to weather our current economic downturn.
Proponents declare that Oklahoma’s liquor laws are antiquated, implying that all laws necessarily become less effective or relevant over time. If antiquated liquor laws result in fewer traffic fatalities and more restricted youth access to alcoholic beverages, then perhaps being antiquated isn’t so old-fashioned after all.
Maisch is the general counsel for the Oklahoma Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement (ABLE) Commission.