By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — “ABC stores send a message to the public that alcohol should not be condemned or eliminated, but that our policy is to keep a close eye on it and its effects,” Jonathan Williams told members of the N.C. House Commerce Committee Wednesday, outlining many of the challenges that the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control Commission faces as it works to protect the public’s health and safety within the framework of fair commercial regulations.
The ABC Chairman reminded lawmakers of alcohol’s long association with violent crime.
“It has frankly been a shock to me in the year and a half since I was appointed chair of the ABC Commission to find that we have potentially lethal stabbings and shootings occurring in ABC permitted clubs almost every weekend somewhere in N.C.,” Williams said, describing an scene in Winston-Salem in which a bouncer tried to fire a shotgun into the ceiling to restore order and wound up dropping the gun which discharged into a patron’s foot. He reported on a shooting and trampling of a pregnant woman in Scotland Neck and a gunfire incident in Raleigh during which shots hit a building at Wake Medical Center.
“Our laws and regulations require ABC permittees to maintain a safe and orderly business operation and to properly superintend their businesses at all times. When these incidents are investigated we often find there is a history of repeated violent incidents,” he said, describing yet another shooting in Jacksonville and one in Greensboro after which employees of a nightclub quickly cleaned up the blood in the parking lot and denied any knowledge of the event. Fortunately it was captured by a security camera.
“In my view, there comes a point when a permittee is on notice that they have become a magnet for violence and it is not an acceptable response to push those offenders out to the street after another fight has started,” Williams said. “It is not the public’s burden to bear, or the police that should risk their lives repeatedly while the drinks keep pouring and the cash register keeps ringing.”
He said a dozen permits had been suspended on his watch as part of ABC’s Last Call initiative. In addition, ABC prosecutes some 1,400 permit violations each year. But the majority of permit holders operate within the law.
More than 17,000 locations sell wine and beer and/or mixed drinks across 99 of North Carolina’s 100 counties making alcohol a $5 billion industry here, Williams said. He said North Carolina is the 12th largest liquor market in the country, third in the nation for wine tourism and that, according to the Beer Institute, Tar Heel residents consume, on average, 20 gallons of beer, 1.7 gallons of wine and 1.1 gallons of spirits per year.
Still, North Carolina, which receives more than $270 million in alcohol revenue for state and local coffers, is among the bottom 10 in total alcohol consumption, he explained. Nonetheless drinking is on the rise.
“I believe that alcohol consumption is a reflection of community values and the broad culture,” he said. “And our restrictions on advertising and limits on days and hours of sale are part of an effort to maintain a culture of moderation in alcohol use.”
He told the committee how ABC had worked to get alcohol energy drinks like Four Loko off the market and ended the sale of 190 proof grain alcohol, which had proved extremely popular around college campuses.
“When we took action, there was some adverse attention paid to us for being the nanny state, but 190 proof pure grain alcohol is illegal in Nevada,” Williams said with a chuckle. “Prostitution’s legal; gambling’s legal… but it’s a crime to sell this product in Nevada.”
Members of the Commerce Committee were briefed on the history of alcohol sales and the three-tier system that keeps suppliers, distributors and retailers from joining forces to skirt regulations and drive up consumption. They learned about wine franchise territories and the ABC’s role in determining whether wine suppliers and grocery store chains can legally operate a joint “wine club” Web site.
Williams also walked lawmakers through the effects of the ABC Reform Bill of 2010, including but not limited to increased oversight and ethics training for local ABC boards. He said abuses in the local board system had grown over time leading to a number of investigations, prosecutions, resignations and a “very public termination for what was termed a ‘pattern of petty corruption.'”
“Over a year ago, I spoke about a culture of entitlement that some people in the ABC system had developed,” Williams said. “That does not reflect the majority at that time or today, and with the bipartisan effort last year at reform I know we have rolled that culture back dramatically.”
Addressing a number of questions from the committee, Williams touched on the role of local government in monitoring problem ABC permit holders and said that towns can refuse to renew business permits for restaurants and bars that have repeated violations even if ABC has not revoked a license. He said ABC is working with Wilmington to set up procedures that would limit the number of alcohol sales permits issued within certain downtown areas where there is already an unmanageable number of bars.
When asked about privatization, Williams stopped short of offering an opinion and said his job doing the yearlong discussion of the controversial issue was merely to point out implications and “the mechanics of getting from Point A to Point B.” He said that before any kind of privatization plan could be put in place, lawmakers would have to answer a host of questions regarding when, where, and how alcohol sales could take place.
Although Gov. Bev Perdue had spoken positively about privatization in the past, after reading the results of a outside firm’s evaluation of the state ABC system and projected earnings from a privatized plan, she decided it wasn’t in North Carolina’s best interest.