A year ago, the editorial board of The News Tribune endorsed a measure that would have privatized the sale of liquor in Washington. We all make mistakes.
We endorsed last year’s Initiative 1100 because it was clearly better than a competing privatization scheme, Initiative 1105. By a split decision, we also concluded that selling liquor simply wasn’t a core function of state government.
That was philosophy. We’ve since been swayed by practical reality. The reality is that dramatically expanding access to distilled spirits – which this year’s Initiative 1183 would do – is bound to have social costs that outweigh the benefits of privatization.
We’re also not enamored by the spectacle of a single company, Costco, attempting to purchase an election and buy a state policy that would pump untold millions into its bottom line.
I-1183 is tailored to favor large-volume buyers of wholesale whiskey, rum, etc. The initiative’s value to Costco – one of the kings of volume purchasing – is such that the company has so far invested more than $22 million in the campaign to pass it. This constitutes nearly all of the money behind I-1183.
Costco has now become – by far – the largest single contributor to a ballot measure in state history. (The largest was the American Beverage Association, which spent $16.7 million repealing a soda pop and bottled water tax. The third largest? Also Costco, which spent $4.8 million trying to enact last year’s I-1100.)
We like to think Washing-tonians’ votes can’t be bought.
The best argument for I-1183 lies in the virtues of a free market. Privatization is likely to increase sales, produce more revenues for state government – and it might reduce prices for consumers.
If we were dealing with almost any other product – say, Wheaties – that would be persuasive. But if one assumes that the consumption of hard liquor has serious downsides, there’s good reason to limit excessive consumption by restricting the number of outlets and their hours of operation. In other words, by keeping sales to state-controlled liquor stores.
The downsides are self-evident: Drunken driving, alcoholism, domestic violence, cirrhosis of the liver and other diseases, higher health care costs and on and on.
Earlier this year, a task force of the U.S. Centers of Disease Control reviewed the scientific studies of privatization.
“Increased alcohol outlet density is also associated with increased social harms,” it concluded. And: “The maintenance of government control of off-premises sale of alcoholic beverages is one of many effective strategies to prevent or reduce excessive consumption, which is one of the leading causes of preventable death and disability.”
Washington state does seem stuck in a post-Prohibition, New Deal regime of liquor regulation. Having reconsidered the alternatives, we’re just fine with that.