When Prohibition ended in 1933, Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot promised to make purchasing alcohol “as inconvenient and expensive as possible.” To this day, Pennsylvania has some of the most stringent—and absurd—liquor laws in the country. Beer and wine can’t be sold in grocery stores, and you can only purchase six-packs of beer at delis or under the counter at bars and taverns, and no more than two six-packs can be purchased at a time. If you want to buy either wine or liquor outside of a bar or restaurant you have to get it through a state-owned “wine and spirits” store. Nowhere in the state is it possible to purchase beer, wine, and liquor from the same establishment.
Many frustrated Pennsylvanians were thus relieved last year when Governor Tom Corbett and the commonwealth’s House majority leader Mike Turzai unveiled a plan to privatize liquor sales in the state. They hope to issue some 1,600 new liquor licenses, most of which would go to existing privately owned beer distributors, finally making it possible to do some one-stop shopping for adult beverages.
But as the state’s liquor privatization plan continued to wend its way through the legislature, a powerful and well-funded opponent emerged earlier this year—the federal Centers for Disease Control. The fact that federal tax dollars are being used to lobby for state regulations is problematic to begin with. Even more troubling is that the CDC’s public health warnings about privatizing liquor sales are knowingly based on junk science. The agency is also underwriting the forces of neo-prohibitionism by doling out grants from a $12.5 billion slush fund created by the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.
In April, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a story with the headline, “If Pennsylvania privatizes alcohol, will drinking increase?” The article reported on “strong evidence” from the CDC’s Community Preventive Services Task Force—described as “an independent group appointed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention”—that privatization of liquor sales would cause consumption to skyrocket.
“In a review of 17 studies on the subject, the task force found that limiting government’s role in sales of beer, wine, and spirits was associated with a median increase of 44.4 percent in per-capita sales for the alcoholic beverage that had been privatized without a corresponding decrease in consumption for other types of booze,” reported the Inquirer.
If it seems unbelievable that eliminating a state liquor monopoly will cause a 44 percent increase in liquor sales, that’s because it is. The next week, Raymond Scalettar, a clinical professor of medicine at the George Washington University Medical Center and a former chairman of the American Medical Association, wrote in the Inquirer that the CDC task force was grossly misleading.
“Of the 17 studies analyzed, six showed no increase in consumption, and four showed only moderate increases. This fact alone would give most researchers pause with regard to any kind of sweeping conclusion,” Scalettar wrote. He further pointed out that figures were skewed by a cultural change that occurred in the 1970s—Americans started enthusiastically growing grapes and drinking wine as never before. Between 1970 and 1980, a decade in which six states also privatized wine sales, per capita wine consumption increased by 66 percent. This historical correlation skews the CDC task force’s results more than enough to make their figures appear alarming but tells us very little about what effect Pennsylvania’s current plans will have on liquor consumption, let alone corresponding public health threats.
The CDC’s Community Preventive Services Task Force does not actually have any hard evidence that liberalizing liquor laws is harmful—and until very recently, it admitted as much. This is the task force’s third pronouncement on the matter in less than a decade. In its 2006-07 review of alcohol policy, it concluded that “there is insufficient evidence to determine the effects of privatization on excessive alcohol consumption and related harms.” In February 2011, the task force noted it had reviewed three studies on privatization of alcohol sales. Two of those studies “yielded mixed, statistically non-significant results.” The report also noted that there were some “statistically non-significant decreases” in alcohol-related hospitalizations in Sweden following the state reassuming control of alcohol sales.