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Mark Squires' E-Zine on Wine

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July / August, 1997

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In Defense of Wine and Free Markets----Say NO to Neo-Prohibitionists
Fight Communism! Support Free Market Reforms! Save Florida, Pennsylvania and others

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Alcohol stands in an odd position in our society. In one corner, you have the health do-gooders. At their most extreme, it appears that nothing less than a new Prohibition will satisfy them, even though so many aspects of our system of distribution already seem to be little more than a prohibition remnant.

To be sure, there are plenty of health dangers from alcohol. There is precious little evidence, however, that moderate use of alcohol presents any danger to most people. Indeed, and on the contrary, the medical evidence on the benefits of moderate wine consumption has become so convincing that even the Journal of the American Medical Association has acknowledged it. In fact, the United States government's official Dietary Guidelines, as well as the American Heart Association, say much the same.

To this, the do-gooder faction says little. They argue, however, that alcohol abuse imposes vast societal costs, and hence, not only are they not just moralizing with respect to some individuals, but they are protecting all of society. This is the argument that, in many respects, brought the tobacco industry down. Eventually, the attorneys general of many States sued the tobacco companies on the theory that the abuse of tobacco cost the States vast amounts of money in health benefits and so on.

This argument was always a dangerous one, and a largely illogical one, since it implies the right of the State to regulate, indeed, halt, any activity that even indirectly costs society any money. There are several important distinctions to be made, however, between alcohol and tobacco. First, a key issue in the tobacco suits was the allegation that the tobacco companies deliberately concealed the addictive and dangerous nature of the product. Second, there is the issue, which to me makes tobacco unique, of second hand smoke. That is, it is claimed that even non-smokers are "forced" to inhale and subject to the same type of health risks as the person actually inhaling. Finally, the arguments presented suggest that tobacco use is an unmitigated health risk. Not when used immoderately. Not just in highly susceptible people. Always. And with no countervailing health benefits---unlike those reported by the ever-increasing alcohol/wine literature along the lines of the French Paradox studies. In fact, in August 1997, the University of California-Berkeley Wellness Letter, relying on the American Heart Association, reported that alcohol may prevent as many as 80,000 deaths a year from coronary artery disease. [page 4, Aug. 1997 issue]

Meeting the societal costs argument on its own terms, therefore, it would seem to me that anticipated efforts of the health do-gooders to give alcohol the same treatment as they gave tobacco should not get very far. Indeed, it should be laughed out of the public arena. If the argument succeeds against alcohol, what would be next? Yes, there are societal costs related to alcohol abuse, and many people die therefrom. Don't other products get abused? Do we blame General Motors if people don't drive well? Many don't drive too well, you know. How about obesity? One-third of Americans are estimated to be obese. What responsibility do ice cream makers, candy manufacturers and purveyors of fatty cheeses and fast foods have for this situation? Should they be made to pay for the cost of treating heart disease, and other ailments linked to obesity?

The State of New York v. Ben & Jerry's. "Your Honor. The State seeks to prove that Defendant consistently made tasty, fattening dairy products that caused entire sections of schools to yell 'I scream, we scream, everyone screams for ice cream," thereby damaging the health of Americans and their KIDS, for gosh sakes, none of whom could possibly be held responsible for their own actions."

Put that way, it seems ridiculous. Because it is.

If in one corner we have the health fanatics, who seemed determined to protect us from ourselves at all costs, in another, much smaller corner we have the hedonists. That's us, folks. We keep to ourselves and tend not to make as much noise. And therein lies the problem. We are very good at the hedonism part. We not only drink, but we drink things that are interesting and taste good. For not only decades, but millennia, poets, statesmen, bon vivants and singers have agreed with us, and lavished praise on the experience of drinking wine with food. Wine with a meal seems the very essence of civilized behavior both to us and in the public imagination. "Alcoholic beverages have been used to enhance the enjoyment of meals by many societies throughout human history," said the USA's governmental Dietary Guidelines. In particular, those who, like us, drink with food seem to get the most health benefits and the least health problems. [Berkeley Wellness Letter, id., at p. 4] Yet somehow we find our backs against the wall in many ways and in many places.

If alcohol is defensible, wine, a subset, is even more defensible. The last set of drunk driving statistics I saw indicated few accidents attributable to wine drinkers. (And of those, I wonder how many were drunk on, say, Grand Puy Lacoste as opposed to some jug/party wine?) These are not the people causing the problems alleged to exist, even if one concedes the overstated case against alcohol.

Yet many states treat wine drinkers like criminals. There seem to be as many regulations on how and where you buy and transport wine as there do relative to guns. In some states it is, horrors, illegal to take a wine into a licensed restaurant. Some states, like Florida, have made it a felony for wineries to ship wine into the state and into the hands of a willing, adult resident. A felony because some guy in Orlando wanted some Marcassin Chardonnay, say?! Surely, they're not serious. But they are..... This is nothing but an anti-consumer action which is aimed not at protecting people, but at protecting big businesses, like local distributors.

And then there's my state, Pennsylvania, where, at the moment, Governor Thomas Ridge's proposed reform and privatization of a quasi-communistic system seems to be having some difficulties.

Remnants of prohibition exist in many states. One of the unfortunate compromises of the repeal was that states were particularly empowered to regulate alcohol. Otherwise many of their regulations would fail immediately, in all likelihood, under the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution. (That's not to say many regulations may not be subject to attack now, only that it's not as easy as it should be to attack them.)

In Pennsylvania, prohibition was repealed, but the government for some reason stayed in the alcohol biz. The State (a Commonwealth actually) owns every single retail outlet. In addition, they do the wine buying for each such outlet. Distributors sell only to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania--Liquor Control Board, not to retail stores. Each and every sales clerk is a union member and employee of the Commonwealth. Welcome to communism.

It seems incredible on reflection that the government is telling us what we can drink, at what price, and is even hiring people to buy wine from distributors and resell to us at retail. Is this what the government should be doing?

Predictably, there are many anomalies and flaws. The system is not a total wasteland, but I could spend a lot of time detailing what more freedom could give us.  

But the most important issue is the fundamental one that free choice does not exist. Only the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is allowed to buy. YOU may not bring in a bottle from New Jersey, say. You may not order that rare case from wherever that Pennsylvania doesn't even have access to.

It's not supposed to be up to them to tell us what to drink. In a free market system, if I do not like the way a retailer is doing something, I walk across the street and go to another. If one retailer specializes in Alsace, perhaps another will be strong in Burgundy. In Pennsylvania, what you see is what you get. And you have no power to take matters into your own hands.

I recall an amusing story, if you have a black sense of humor, of a woman who very much wanted a wine she could not find in Pennsylvania. So, trying hard to be legal, she special ordered the wine (sometimes this works, sometimes not). She had to order a case. Then for months she was given various stories as to why the wine, which she wanted for Christmas, had not arrived. Then, one day, she saw the wine advertised---and at a good price---at one of the many New Jersey stores just across the river. Frustrated, she got in her car, and bought it. Perhaps she's lucky in love, because coming back across the bridge into Pennsylvania she was stopped and fined for violating the liquor laws. The wine was confiscated.

Yet, to date, every attempt to change this thoroughly rotten system has failed. One of its primary defenders, Vincent Fumo, a State Senator, has said that no one would think of creating such a system if they were starting from scratch, but changing it is another matter. Why?

Practically speaking, there are three pockets of opposition. First, the union members (and the politicians allied with them). Understandably, they don't want to lose their jobs. I'm sorry. But if they're really any good at their jobs, they will likely get hired elsewhere. The fact is, many of them know literally nothing about what they are selling, especially in the fine wine specialty stores. It might as well be lettuce or tomatoes. It is just a job. For such people, a career change is in order. Help them. But don't let them block reform. The government shouldn't be in the business of selling us wine.

Second, we find the neo-prohibitionists. They use many arguments, safety, the health diatribes discussed above, and more, but it all boils down to this: they'd rather people not drink. They revel in the system's inadequacies (ironically contradicting the propaganda from the LCB and the union about how wonderfully the system works!) because they view it as successfully restricting the sale of alcohol. Since we are now back to square one, I will reiterate only in passing that merely because some people abuse alcohol does not mean everyone does or will. The neo-probs also seem not to comprehend that one needs only get in a car and go to neighboring states. If they really think Pennsylvania is a successful control state just because of consumption statistics from Pennsylvania stores, they are kidding themselves. Pennsylvania's rules force otherwise honest, decent people to become scofflaws and waste time, but they do not seal off borders or control wine sales. Mothers Against Drunk Driving may have a right to be mad, but I fail to see why that means I can't have a good bottle of wine at the most competitive price in Pennsylvania.

The third group is the most surprising one: wine distributors. People who supposedly love wine. Many of these people LOVE the current system for an obvious reason, obvious at least once one thinks about it: they don't have to work too hard. There is a single buyer--the Commonwealth. Once you're in, you're in. You don't have to convince 50 retail chains. Secondly, they also have an established business to protect. Now, it is not entirely clear how the mechanism of Pennsylvania's reform will work since the Commonwealth apparently will state in the wholesale (not retail) business. But it seems to be clear that many distributors are reluctant to upset the applecart.

In sum, I have heard any number of reasons for not supporting privatization in Pennsylvania, but as always, we seem to stand in our corner relatively quietly, even though one would think that as a group we are likely to be well educated and well heeled. So why aren't we making more noise? Why do we let idiotic Florida felony laws pass, and government ownership of retail outlets in Pennsylvania continue?

No, the reforms are not perfect. BUT they are reforms. They are a step forward, and a way to ease the government and union out of the wine business, where they have no place. This is a battle being fought on many fronts in many ways, but Pennsylvania is a front line state at the moment.

If you live here, support the reforms.

There is no other choice. Fight other battles on another day; but win this one. Every legislator needs to know that this is important to you. If you live elsewhere, the same advice pertains. Why did New York reject reciprocity? Why do states like Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky take such hard lines on winery shipments? Health arguments are just the subterfuge. There are usually other interests behind the scenes.

Speak up for a change, and tell your representative that WE vote, too. Otherwise, the neo-probs and special interests win again. My vow: I will not vote for anyone who opposes privatization in Pennsylvania. Period.

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Copyright Mark Squires, 1997, all rights reserved.