ABCs of Alcohol (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

by Gwen Moritz  on Monday, Sep. 6, 2004 12:00 am  

The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board's recent decision to grant a private club permit to a new restaurant in downtown Conway is yet another reminder that this state's laws concerning the sale of alcohol are ridiculous.

I would say that they are completely crazy, except that they seem to accomplish their unstated goal of maximizing profits for the liquor industry.

I realize that alcohol is an emotional issue for many people, but unless we want to take another shot at Prohibition, the least we can do is have laws that are rational. The only law that should be retained is the prohibition against buying and consuming alcohol by persons under the age of 21. (And the argument that 18-year-olds are old enough to die for their country and should be old enough to drink could be settled by giving the right to drink to all 18-year-olds who die for their country.)

Not selling alcohol on Sundays is as quaint as the old blue laws that forbade the selling of pantyhose on Sundays, and if there is an explanation that doesn't involve religion, I'd love to hear it. Allowing only Arkansas-made wines to be sold in grocery stores is probably a violation of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Most ridiculous of all are Arkansas' laws concerning wet and dry counties. Forbidding the sale of alcohol in certain counties does not prevent anyone from drinking; it merely makes it less convenient. And that inconvenience may actually exacerbate the dangers that are undoubtedly associated with alcohol. A 2003 study of 39,000 alcohol-related traffic accidents in Kentucky concluded that residents of dry counties were more likely to be involved, presumably because they have to drive farther to get back home after drinking.

Still, if a majority of residents of a county (or township or judicial district) want to ban liquor stores and keep alcohol out of restaurants, that sounds like democracy in action to me. The question is, how do we know?

Most Arkansas counties (43 out of 75) availed themselves of a 1942 initiated act that allowed voters to choose whether alcohol could be sold inside the county. (Critics have often pointed out that the initiated act and many of the county referendums were carried out while a large number of the state's drinking-age men were off fighting World War II.)

Originally, wet-to-dry referendums could be placed on the ballot by petition of 15 percent of registered voters in the geographic unit. And repeals, which could also be referred to the electorate by a 15 percent petition, were occasionally attempted. In 1978, Craighead County voted to remain dry, while Baxter County decided to go back to wet.

The 1942 act was subsequently amended, first to require a petition by 30 percent of registered voters (1985) and then to require 38 percent (1995). The result is virtual assurance that the counties that are wet will remain wet and the counties that are dry will remain dry — and I suspect that was the intent.

A liquor retailer who invested in opening a store wouldn't want to run the risk of having the county go dry shortly thereafter. Nor would he want the dry county that begins a few hundred feet from his existing store to suddenly go wet, requiring him to open additional stores or risk losing business to competitors who do. Either way, the retailer's margins suffer. Politics creates strange bedfellows: Arkansans who wish to preserve the dry county system because of moral or religious objections to alcohol are the best friends the liquor industry has. It's a lot like those anti-gambling moralists who fund their campaigns with money supplied by Mississippi casino operators.

The liquor industry might actually like to change the dry county law so that it only applied to package stores and not to restaurants. Offering alcohol by-the-drink in dry counties might actually lead to a slight increase in alcohol consumption. A bill that would have created the option of "semi-wet" geographic areas went nowhere in 2003.

So we'll keep reading about individual restaurateurs who have to cook up some bogus "nonprofit organization" in order to sell wine with veal parmigiana. And we'll roll our eyes because Chili's — a chain of restaurants owned by a publicly traded company — was somehow able to jump through enough hoops to be granted a private club permit in dry Benton County but couldn't do the same in dry Craighead County. And everyone who wants to drink will keep doing so in the most inconvenient, profitable way imaginable — at least until Wal-Mart decides it wants to be able to sell beer in its home county.

(Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. E-mail her at gmoritz@abpg.com.)

 

 

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