By L.A. Williams, CAL Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH – More alcohol on more days at more locations with less control over sales. That’s the goal of a handful of bills introduced in the N.C. Legislature this week – one to allow liquor sales on Sunday, another to offer sales in so-called “agency” stores and a third to expand wine sales into areas without voter approval.
The quest for revenue to help close the state’s anticipated, two-year $6.4 billion budget gap is driving the push for the bills, especially Sunday sales, with little concern for the societal costs that always accompany increased consumption.
View News 14 Carolina Video, Bill Would Open Sunday for Liquor Sales
Sen. Tony Rand (D-Cumberland) filed Senate Bill 921 – ABC Board Sunday Sales/Local Option on March 25.
“No doubt, selling liquor on Sunday will bring North Carolina more revenue, but every sales increase is an increase in consumption, which means an increase in associated problems,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina. “Studies have linked Sunday sales with more traffic accidents – one study showed more than a 25 percent increase in alcohol-related crashes – and also increases in alcohol treatment center admissions.”
“We already know that more drinking will drive up public costs for everything from medical treatment to welfare as alcoholism takes its toll on families,” Creech added. “And worst of all, it will take more lives.”
The liquor industry predicts that Sunday sales in bars and ABC stores would bring North Carolina an additional $5.5 million in tax revenue. States that have eliminated alcohol blue laws in the past few years have reported 5 to 8 percent increases in sales. But what isn’t being considered is a study by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation showing that even a 5 percent increase in consumption increases societal cost per resident by about $25 per year.
“We oppose Sunday liquor sales for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that we don’t feel like any benefit would be worth the cost,” Creech said.
Among the evidence against Sunday liquor sales is a 1988 study published in “Substance Use & Misuse” showing significant increases in the number of Sunday traffic accidents after Sunday sales were legalized in Brisbane, Australia. In New Mexico, when the Sunday sales ban was repealed, a study reported in the 2006 American Journal of Public Health revealed a 29 percent increase in alcohol-related crashes on Sundays and a 42 percent increase in alcohol-related fatalities.
“For the first time, we have real data on whether blue laws actually protect public health,” study co-author Garnett McMillan of the Behavioral Health Research Center of the Southwest said at the time. “Today’s study finds that the Sunday ban saved lives and prevented hundreds of injuries and fatalities from alcohol-related crashes.”
Similarly, the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education reported in 1993 that a review of the Sunday alcohol ban supported the contention that the ban helped reduce driving while impaired.
Apart from research specifically exploring Sunday liquor sales, statistics show that impaired driving fatalities are more likely to occur on weekends. Further, a 2008 study reported by Science Daily shows that most alcohol impaired driving is performed by binge drinkers. So it seems that one way to reduce alcohol related fatalities is to keep laws that limit, in some small way, access to alcohol on weekends.
The Alcohol & Public Health Research Unit reports that Sunday closings, like a break in 24-hour availability of alcohol, can help disrupt excessive drinking, a phenomenon also described by researchers who analyzed public drunkenness during Sunday sales in Gallup, N.M.
“Binge drinking is the most common type of drinking observed for the protective custody population. When Sunday sales were illegal many people that came into town for the weekend would leave on Sundays because alcohol was not available,” researcher Mark Miller wrote. “Some argue that the availability of alcohol sales on Sunday would contribute to binge drinkers lapsing into a chronic drinking behavior.”
In addition to pushing for liquor sales on Sundays, alcohol advocates are also championing a move toward privatizing liquor sales.
Sen. Charles Albertson (D-Duplin) introduced Senate Bill 839 – Modernization of the ABC System, on March 24 with its companion, House Bill 768, filed the same day by Rep. James Crawford (D-Granville).
Taking its cues from a report issued late last year by the Legislature’s Program Evaluation Division, this bill, among other things, would give the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission more authority over local ABC Boards, would more clearly define the mission of the boards and would increase the number of registered voters required for a city to hold a mixed beverage referendum.
Unfortunately, it would also swing open the door to privatized alcohol sales by allowing a local ABC board to contract with a person or business to operate a a retail outlet for liquor sales so long as the person has not already received an ABC permit and provided the store is not in an area already served by an ABC store.
While these parameters seem fairly narrow, allowing any private retailer to sell liquor takes control lout of the hands of local government and moves the state one step closer to total privatization. The PED study recommendations said local boards should be required to contract with an agency store to sell liquor “when performance standards indicate efficient operation of an ABC store by a board is not possible.”
“We understand the need for efficiency, but putting liquor in the hands of retailers outside the ABC system is surrendering government control over this potentially harmful commodity and trusting it to the whims of individual workers, who may have little motivation to uphold state alcohol laws,” said the Rev. Creech.
The North Carolina Association of ABC Boards opposes the creation of agency stores primarily because it emphasizes the profit motive over the goal of controlled sales.
The organization had responded to the PED recommendation late in 2008, reminding the review agency that ABC store operators, who are local government workers and often long-term employees, lose their jobs if they sell to an underage or intoxicated patron and that they have no incentive to make irresponsible sales for the sake of profit. These factors are not necessarily true for convenience or grocery store workers hired by agency contractors.
Further, local referenda to establish ABC boards and allow alcohol sales are often hotly contested with control a major concern. Having the ABC Commission to allow or even force local boards to contract with an agency store for sales is something of end-around since voters would have approved an ABC store, not liquor sales at the local pharmacy.
Already three boards of county commissioners – Wayne, Martin and Chowan – have issued resolutions opposing the bill’s call for agency stores and reiterating their commitment to making liquor available to their citizens only through ABC stores.
“We’ve said it before about these bills that circumvent existing alcohol laws. It is the camel’s nose under the tent,” said the Rev. Mark Creech. “Allowing one private retailer to sale liquor will spark an outcry from the rest calling the agency store contract unfair. So, with or without a legal challenge, we’ll wind up relaxing the rules until any virtually any business can become a liquor store. And who knows where the booze will be going then? It will be a far cry from the current control system that has served North Carolina well.”
Legislators considering support for Albertson’s bill should be aware that opening the door to privatization is also welcoming increases in alcohol consumption.
According to a 2003 report, “Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity Research and Public Policy,” control states like North Carolina consume 16 percent less distilled spirits than license states. In fact, the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission reports that the Tar Heel state ranks 48th in per capita consumption but remains 6th in generating revenue.
Even so, ABC Commission Administrator Mike Herring said the Commission is ready to work with the General Assembly to modernize the system and improve efficiencies. He said the Commission has not met since the filing of the bill and has not released an opinion on its provisions.
The Rev. Creech had warned on the CAL Web site as early as March 7 that the PED study results indicated a fundamental shift in the purpose of the ABC system from one of control to that of profitability.
“To focus on ‘profits’ in contrast to ‘control’ would be a major shift in alcohol policy for the state of North Carolina,” he wrote. “We should support any effort to help ABC better regulate the flow of spirits. But ABC is not in the liquor business. Its purpose is not to promote or encourage the sale of spirits, but to provide access to alcoholic beverages that communities approve by the ballot box.”
As mentioned, another bill filed this week would give access to alcohol sales at certain North Carolina businesses, even without voter approval.
Rep. Melanie Goodwin (D-Richmond) introduced House Bill 667 – Winery Sales Changes, on March 18.
Passed on first reading and referred to the Committee on Alcoholic Beverage Control, this bill would allow wineries to sell wine in localities where no ABC election has authorized the sale of wine. The legislation could affect up to 36 wineries in 19 counties, eight of which already allow unfortified wine sales, but not fortified wine.
“This bill would allow wineries to circumvent the ABC laws and basically ignore the results of local option referenda,” said the Rev. Creech. “Further, it could open the door for other businesses in the same jurisdictions to demand wine sales as well.”
Yadkin County is home to a dozen of the vineyards that could begin selling fortified wine for on- or off-premise consumption if Rep. Goodwin’s bill passes. While Yadkinville offers sales of wine, beer and mixed drinks, Yadkin County offers only the sale of unfortified wine, that which is 16 percent or less alcohol by volume. Wineries that stand to benefit from H 667 range from Graham County in the west to Randolph near the state’s center.
Be prepared to take Christian Action:
The Christian Action League urges Christians to watch for our Weekly Issues Update and be ready to respond quickly when these bills come up for a hearing. “In a time of economic downturn, these bills have momentum”, said Rev. Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “I am convinced without a loud and vocal protest to these measures by citizen Christians, lawmakers will interpret that silence as support.”