By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
May 3, 2019
Lawmakers on the House Alcoholic Beverage Control Committee on Tuesday served up a bill that should leave North Carolinians both shaken and stirred.
With nearly two dozen provisions, the industry-driven omnibus measure would establish bars where at least 75 percent of proceeds come from alcohol sales. It would remove restrictions on how many bottles of liquor distilleries could sell and allow breweries to sell beer for on- or off-premise consumption even in areas where residents had voted it down. It would make breweries exempt from food sanitation regulations, allow beer and wine sales at collegiate sporting events and deepen discounts for alcohol, which could be shipped out of state. And all that is just for starters.
The bill would allow the sale of up to four alcoholic beverages to one person at a time, and people would be able to buy alcohol at bingo games, in common entertainment areas of large buildings and on the ferry headed from Hatteras to Okracoke Island. They could also buy it from ABC stores seven days a week or even have beer and wine delivered straight to their door. Further, if unsure what to order, they could sample malt beverages for free at farmers markets or try some free liquor at an ABC store tasting.
While sponsors tried to pass off the measure as a jobs bill, the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, called House Bill 536 “reckless liberalizing of our alcohol laws that will significantly increase alcohol outlet density, expand days and hours of sale on Sundays, undermine our current system of control for the sale of liquor, reduce restrictions that help discourage overconsumption and make alcohol more accessible to our youth.” He told lawmakers’ their “feigning to do a good thing or two” amid the 16-page bill did not make up for its myriad of egregious provisions.
House Majority Leader Rep. John Bell (R-Wayne) defended the bill as necessary to “unleash” distilleries and contended that alcohol could be treated much as any other food or beverage.
“The fact is that this is an industry – this is a booming industry in our state. And if we took the word alcohol away from it, if you substituted wine or you substituted ice-cream, anything like that, every single one of us would jump on board and say, yes, yes, yes. We want the jobs. We want the revenues,” Bell told his colleagues. “You put the word liquor in there and it scares people to death. … Don’t look at it as an alcohol bill. This is actually a jobs bill.”
But Creech told the committee that North Carolinians are right to take a sober look at alcohol’s effects.
“People get frightened, they get worried, they get concerned about alcohol and for good reason,” he said “We’ve had two constitutional amendments in this country with regard to alcohol. Do you know of any other commodity like that?”
The main problem with those who crafted the bill, Creech said, was that they bent over backward to bring the alcohol industry reps to the table but failed to invite public health and safety experts to weigh in and advise.
“They had a pre-hearing meeting with the industry stakeholders, and then had them at the ABC Committee meeting for the bill’s hearing,” said Creech. “Industry stakeholders were mentioned repeatedly and many were called to the podium to speak. I counted as many as ten present. The meeting was an orgy for liquor love with laughs about drinking and smirks and grins at admonishments for caution. It was truly a low moment for what we would expect of such an august body.”
Diane Riibe, the former executive director of the U.S. Alcohol Policy Alliance and a 25-year veteran of alcohol policy work, made it her business to address the committee.
“This is absolutely a jobs bill,” she told Bell and other legislators, including primary bill sponsors Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), James Boles, (R-Moore) and Susan Fisher, (D-Buncombe). “You will definitely create more jobs for ER doctors, domestic violence counselors, treatment counselors and morticians, and I am not kidding.”
Riibe said in more than a quarter-century of alcohol policy work, she had never seen a state “take on this level of polarization of the current system.” She urged lawmakers to clear their heads long enough to “consider whether or not you want to hear the public health impact and hear from those who know.”
“It is as though every single provision looked at what the science was and said ‘we’ll do differently than that,’” Riibe said. “The result will be very clear, make no mistake about it.”
She said lawmakers who express concern over the opioid epidemic, which killed about 72,000 people last year, should remember that 88,000 die annually from excessive alcohol consumption, a factor that would worsen in North Carolina if the bill is passed.
Jim Albright with the N.C. Alcohol Policy Alliance addressed the committee to express support for the state’s ABC system and said he wanted to sound the alarm bells over high levels of consumption and a lack of awareness about alcohol’s direct link to six different types of cancer.
The outside appeals to the committee came on the heels of a plea from one of their own. After unsuccessfully floating multiple amendments to try to mitigate the bill’s harm, Rep. Pat Hurley (R-Randolph) pleaded with the group to vote down the legislation.
“Alcohol should be regulated. Deregulation has many dangerous and unintended consequences for society at large,” she said, characterizing the Omnibus bill as an effort to tear down the current ABC system piece by piece. “I beg you to help stop this now.”
Instead the committee gave the bill its stamp of approval, moving it on to the House Finance Committee.