Tuesday I attended a public hearing of the Massachusetts Alcohol Task Force. Deb Goldberg, the State Treasurer, created the task force to look at the laws and regulations governing the alcohol beverage industry. About fifteen people were present and about eight people spoke.
Three groups of stakeholders were present. The largest group, more in numbers than in influence, were people from the public health community. All of these speakers were women and focused on prevention of underage drinking. Their basic demands were for public health to have a seat at the table, more funding for compliance checks, and controls over advertising if possible. Several of the women mentioned tax increases but this was not a major demand.
Viewing alcohol use and abuse through a public health lens is a relatively new phenomena. Before Prohibition, temperance and prohibition advocates saw alcohol use as a moral issue which affected all of American society. During Repeal and after, both the liquor industry and the medical community refashioned alcohol problems as problems of the individual requiring an individual medical response.
Inspired by the anti-smoking movement which saw smoking as having a societal cost, public health advocates began to see drinking in a similar light. The tightening of drunk driving laws, raising the minimum drinking age to twenty-one, and not allowing spirits advertising on television are all examples of the public health approach to alcohol problems.
The liquor industry has been careful to not directly contest public health demands but has continued to present options around alcohol as solely an individual’s choice. Two industry representatives spoke at the hearing. One was from the Distilled Spirits Council which is a longstanding trade association representing seventy-five percent of distilled spirits producers. His focus was on creating a level playing field for distilled spirits and limiting any legislation which works against a free market.
Such an approach has been standard for the liquor industry since Repeal. Distilled spirits producers have long resented the preferential treatment beer has received on both the state and federal levels. In the 1980’s the Distilled Spirits Council had a very effective ad which showed that “Alcohol is Alcohol is Alcohol. The DSC spokesperson repeated this mantra at the hearing.
The other person representing the liquor industry has a farmer-brewer license and owns a very small brewery. These two speakers revealed a reality of the liquor industry which is that it is highly segmented. There are multinational corporations that produce distilled spirits and mega brewers but there are also very small breweries in many local areas and micro distillers in many counties in the country.
The final stake holders in alcohol legislation and regulations are municipal officials whose primary concern at the hearing was the licensing system. Massachusetts distributes liquor licenses for various retail operations using a quota system based on population. The Mayor of Northampton, David Narkewicz has more requests than he has licenses and therefore wants a streamlined process for getting over-quota licenses.
Alisa Brewer, a member of the Amherst Select Board, wants the flexibility to issue different types of licenses depending on the needs of the community. Because all-alcohol licenses are the most expensive many restaurants want the more narrow wine and beer license. Amherst has less of those but has not used all of its all-alcohol licenses. Keeping the number allotted the same, she would like to locally determine how many of each the town distributes.
The hearing revealed a tension that has been present for governments regulating alcohol for a long time. The alcoholic beverage industry and the role it plays in the entertainment industry provides a great deal of revenue for state government. However the state must balance the economic benefits of encouraging alcohol production against the goal of providing public health and safety.
The Alcohol Task Force will wrestle with determining the right proportions for regulations. I will try to keep you posted on further developments.