By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc.
RALEIGH – Few who have seen the effects of alcohol would argue that it is an ordinary commodity, yet there are early signs of a move afoot in the Tar Heel state to begin treating it as such – a move as strongly opposed by the Christian Action League as by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.
“You usually won’t see me standing with ABC. But in this case you will,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “If anything we need more control in this state and not less. Privatizing liquor sales, I think, would be a disaster.”
The Program Evaluation Division of the General Assembly, established by the Legislature as a permanent staff division last year, has been asked to evaluate the effectiveness of the ABC System and identify improvement options including privatization. A Joint Legislative Oversight Committee sets the annual work plan for the PED, and the team assigned to this issue is expected to kick off its study in May or June with ensuing interviews of interested parties and ABC officials, visits to boards and stores, focus groups and more.
No doubt, objective scrutiny can benefit any agency; but if the final report, expected to be issued by February 2009, recommends privatization, battle lines will be drawn.
“The system we have is not a perfect one, but it’s better than the alternative,” Creech said. “Turn ‘demon run’ loose in the private sector and we’ll have hell to pay.”
North Carolina is one of 18 so-called “control” states that regulate alcohol sales by controlling retail and/or wholesale distribution. Local governments can decide – via voter referenda – whether or not to have an ABC store. Introduced to the state’s General Assembly in 1937, the Control Act established the State Board of Control, now known as the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission (ABC). According to the Commission, North Carolina has 49 county and 107 municipal ABC boards that sell spirituous liquor at the retail level. Depending on what has been approved by voters, some areas have mixed beverage sales and on- and off-premise sales of beer and wine.
“Some people confuse ABC with the state being in the liquor business, but that’s really not their function,” Creech said. “Their business is the business of control. The repeal of prohibition made alcohol sales legal, but the state recognizes that alcohol is not an ordinary commodity and its sale must be in a controlled setting.”
“We are all about responsible sales,” said Jon P. Carr of the North Carolina Association of ABC Boards. “Our employees are local government employees who are not motivated by profit, but are engaging in responsible alcohol sales.”
Should the state decide to privatize, that element of responsibility would be sacrificed, and studies show that consumption would rise. Research on alcohol policy already demonstrates that a larger number or concentration of alcohol outlets in an area are linked with increased drinking. And there is no question that states with privatized liquor sales have more outlets than control states.
In addition, control states restrict hours more than private outlets and also limit the amount of advertising, another factor that influences rates of consumption. Furthermore, increases in consumption aren’t simply an issue affecting “heavy” drinkers.
According to the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, “higher levels of alcohol consumption across the entire population are associated with higher incidence of injuries (especially motor vehicle crashes), increased risk of certain diseases (such as cirrhosis), increased fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol effects, increased risk of mental illness, more crime, and reduced worker productivity.
“These translate into more deaths, higher health care cost, higher cost of enforcement, higher cost of productivity, property loss, and lost jobs.”
The arguments against privatization are many and varied, as are the studies that show the advantages of states’ maintaining control of the sale of spirits. Creech and other alcohol opponents are urging their supporters to keep an eye on the PED study and be ready to act should privatization be recommended in the report when it is issued early next year.
Meanwhile, be on the lookout for further reports on this issue from the Christian Action League as the study gets under way.