Opinion: Daily Journal

New campaign against ABC reform rests on recycled arguments

Please, send this one back. It tastes bitter.

Opponents of measures that would relax North Carolina’s arcane — punitive, even — ABC laws are running out of new arguments, which are becoming more pervasive, more hard-edged.

The clock, they know, is ticking.

These alcohol opponents are quick to cite studies relating alcohol to traffic fatalities, to family break-ups. They refer us to studies focusing on the deleterious effects of alcohol on our health, and to studies predicting an impending cultural apocalypse.

It’s important that opponents of the wicked whiskey continue to have their say, and I support them in their efforts to speak out, regardless of whether I agree with their points.

But the problems start when those arguments are based primarily on a personal view of what’s right and what’s wrong, on a specific, narrow set of beliefs. On maintaining the status quo, even if that standard may be rusted and wrecked.

A new campaign focuses on stopping legislation that would set up a licensing model for liquor sales and rid the state of a system of onerous, locally controlled, and politically motivated alcohol control boards.

“Join us in the fight against dangerous legislation that threatens the safety and financial well-being of North Carolinians,” announces the group, NC Keep it Local. It lists among its supporters MADD, police groups, and the N.C. Association of ABC Boards, as well as groups addressing the problems of substance abuse.

Yet the arguments from the groups — and similar arguments against spirits — are counterintuitive. The Keep it Local group, on its website, argues North Carolina has an efficient liquor sales system and that the ABC boards provide a safe sales environment, which gives counties and municipalities money to invest in their communities.

That is only partly true. Efficient it is not.

The group also argues the state system “appropriately balances consumer access, control, and revenue. North Carolina has one of the lowest liquor consumption rates in the country. Privatizing liquor sales likely results in an excessive number of liquor outlets, making it more available for those who need it the least: minors and irresponsible drinkers.”

Of course, minors should have no access to liquor, and we should reach out to and help problem drinkers.

But a disconnect happens when we talk about revenue from liquor while at the same time promoting control and access.

Which is it?

You can’t continually tighten controls (aka limits) on sales while boosting revenue.

“This is a booming industry in the state,” Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, recently said of the state’s craft distillers, as well as its brewers and vintners.

“You take alcohol away from it …. any of us would jump on board. We want the jobs, we want the revenue.”

Bell is mostly correct.

If the argument was, say, about soda fountains, would these same prohibitionists come forward, even though studies have found excess consumption of sugar is harmful to our health, or that ingesting dairy products could result in serious digestive issues and leave us at higher risk for heart disease and some cancers?

Possibly. Some states, and countries, have singled out sugar as a target to tax, and the debate over dairy has raged for years. Beyond that, though, is the larger issue of government control and intrusion at the expense of a free and open marketplace.

Arguments and conclusions are tailored to the debate and the debater. We once heard and read that drinking moderate amounts of red wine can be good for the heart. That drinking whiskey can lower cholesterol. Recent studies now try to debunk those findings, saying any amount of alcohol is deleterious to our health.

Naysayers contend, wrongly, that hard liquor is more dangerous to drinkers than are beer and wine, and that it must be controlled differently.

Christopher Snowdon is an author, edits the Nanny State Index, and heads lifestyle economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. In an interview with Forbes, Snowdon talked about studies focusing on alcohol and health, and what those studies mean as part of the overall debate on alcohol.

“The health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption are seen by anti-alcohol campaigners as an obstacle to the kind of tobacco-style regulation they desire,” Snowdon told Forbes. “As the thirst for draconian action has increased so has the eagerness to cast doubt on the health benefits.

“The evidence showing that moderate drinkers live longer than teetotalers, mostly due to the benefits of alcohol on the heart, is very strong. It has been tested and retested over decades precisely because there are so many people who are inclined to disbelieve it.”

“… These days,” Snowdon says, “the naysayers — merchants of doubt, if you will — tend to rely on modeling studies that say whatever the researcher wants them to say, or on junk science, which misrepresents the study’s own findings for dramatic effect.”

In North Carolina, that’s become a consistent strategy to fight proposals that would make it easier for craft distillers to prosper, or to give consumers more choice.

The debate isn’t about alcohol, or shouldn’t be.

Nevertheless, the arguments against ABC reform will continue, pretty much unchanged in point and scope. For alcohol opponents, it’s about state control and maintaining a status quo benefiting those with a political stake in an outdated and broken system.

Expect them, like-minded lawmakers and lobbyists alike, to get louder and more persistent, because the time they have to sell these arguments, which are becoming all the more white noise, is running short.