Publication: The Stranger
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 59135
Journal code: STRR

Protect Our Communities-the campaign to reject Initiatives 1100 and 1105, both of which would end the state's monopoly on liquor sales-is running a TV commercial in nearly constant rotation these days. It depicts a bunch of kids-young teenagers- attempting to buy liquor and getting away with it because, hey, private convenience stores would be less diligent about checking IDs than the state-run stores we have now.

So we glean that Protect Our Communities is against underage drinking. If we reject the measures, kids couldn't buy alcohol at grocery stores or gas stations-and they just want to protect the children, right?


The Protect Our Communities campaign isn't opposed to the availability of alcohol at private stores. The latest records from the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission reveal that the campaign is bankrolled overwhelmingly by the national beer lobby, which already sells its product at those private stores. Since October 1, the Beer Institute and the National Beer Wholesalers Association have kicked in $2.4 million each to defeat privatization of hard-alcohol sales. More than a dozen beer distributors also pitched in to the $8.8 million campaign.

These guys are trying to reduce the sale of alcohol? Please. These are the leading alcohol pushers in the country. The Beer Institute's officers are the presidents and CEOs of Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, Crown Imports, and Heineken USA. The National Beer Wholesalers Association, the other big donor, is made up of the distributors for the same big beer companies. For example, the group's chair is Larry Del Papa, president and CEO of Del Papa Distributing, the national distributor for Budweiser. And Budweiser itself chipped in $10,000.

Not surprisingly, the campaign is silent on private stores selling the accidental bottle of alcohol to minors-as long as it's their product (beer) and not someone else's product (liquor). The claim that allowing stores to sell liquor will create a crisis is partly true-but only a crisis for them.

In more candid moments, the campaign concedes this is about controlling the market. Sandeep Kaushik, a spokesman for Protect Our Communities, says that brewers are "threatened by these initiatives. The craft brewers oppose I-1100, especially. They see themselves pushed off the shelves."

But look at the stacks of money involved. This isn't about craft brewers, and this isn't about protecting communities. This is about protecting the profits of massive corporations. Anheuser-Busch controls a 48.9 percent share of U.S. beer sales to retailers, according to its own website, and reports show the company made $4.6 billion in profits last year.

"We are a coalition of Washington individuals and organizations that choose to stand up to big business," says the Protect Our Communities website, referring to Costco and Safeway, which want to sell liquor. Bullshit. The beer lobby represents a massive national business. But in their stead, they send out Heather McClung of the Washington Brewers Guild to claim liquor privatization is a "power grab by some very large corporations."

So back to the disingenuous commercial about the teens buying booze. I'm not here to defend underage drinking (even though almost everyone's had a drink underage, including the folks working on the campaign, which they admitted at a forum on October 19). But here's what needs to be said about the noncompliance of private stores: The actual minors getting away with buying alcohol- beer, wine, hard liquor-aren't toddlers drinking Jack Daniel's. They're not the children in the ad. They're passing for 21 or over. They are overwhelmingly adults in their late teens and 20 years old. Not kids. Besides, California (which sells liquor in the way that Initiative I-1100 proposes) has an underage drinking rate of 26.3 percent of teenagers, far below Washington's 31.3 percent rate, according to a federal survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. California's binge-drinking rates are also much lower.

So this isn't about protecting kids. It's about protecting profits. And there's no reason to vote to keep Budweiser in charge of what's in your grocery store.

Why should you vote for I-1100? It gets the state out of a business it does poorly and shouldn't have been in to begin with. The state frequently runs out of products, the stores are scarce and austere, they're closed more often than they're open, the selection is terrible, the state charges a 51 percent markup for a bloated system, and it's been this way since Prohibition. The state legislature has considered reform for the past 13 years-each time capitulating to an employees union that told them to keep the same broken system (a union that makes money from that broken system). Granted, I-1100 isn't perfect; state and local governments could lose some money in the short term (tiny fractions of their overall budgets). But if you ever want liquor laws to change, don't wait for the beer lobby or a spineless legislature-because that will never happen. Vote yes on I-1100.

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