Court Ruling Challenges Little-Known System That Benefits Public Health

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This March, just one month before Alcohol Awareness Month, a federal court in Austin ruled that giant retailers like Walmart and Costco can begin selling hard liquor.

Current law prohibits Texas’ publicly traded businesses from owning liquor stores. In the long run, this law is good for public health because it limits consumer availability of liquor and the consequences that come with it.

This fight is a long time coming. More than three years ago, Walmart sued the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, arguing state liquor laws “unfairly gave family-owned chains the right to obtain unlimited liquor store permits while shutting the largest U.S. retailer out of the lucrative market entirely,” according to this Texas Tribune article.

This court ruling directly affects our current three-tier system of alcohol distribution, which helps the federal and state governments regulate and control the alcohol industry. As its name suggests, the three-tier system is composed of, you guessed it, three tiers:

Tier 1: Suppliers/Producers – anyone who actually makes or supplies the alcohol (e.g., breweries).

Tier 2: Distributors/Wholesalers – those who get alcohol from the suppliers/producers to the places where you buy or consume it.

Tier 3: Retailers – anywhere consumers can get alcohol (e.g., bars, restaurants, grocery stores, package stores)

It’s a rather complicated system and if you’re interested in learning more about it, we’d recommend reading some of Pam Erickson’s work, or checking out Toward Liquor Control, or sending us an email with any questions you may have. However, the bottom line is this: the three-tier system is incredibly important for public health and safety, especially as it relates to our kids.

It may not seem like a big deal, but a system most people are unfamiliar with is protecting our public health, and most of us are unaware that there are strong forces at work seeking to dismantle this system through alcohol deregulation. Small changes like these add up over time and ultimately create situations where we’ve expanded availability of and access to a product that is not an ordinary commodity; it is not like apple juice, where the most likely danger of overconsumption is a full and gurgly tummy.

Let’s paint a picture.

Let’s say Walmart, or another big box store, is now able to sell alcohol. Where do they put it? Is it in a separate section of the store where you must be 21 to enter (like liquor stores)? Or, as you and your family are strolling down the aisles, do you pass the soda…then the beer…and now you’re face to face with a bottle of whiskey?

Adults would no longer need to go to liquor stores, where even the cashier has to be at least 21 years old, to get their whiskey and vodka. With this new “convenience” and increased availability, they can buy liquor while buying groceries, making alcohol to appear as an everyday household item with no risks to our kids.

What about the 16-year-old cashier at a major retailer, who is allowed to sell alcohol in a grocery store under current law? Will this young cashier be more likely to sell whiskey or vodka to his underage friends when they go through his checkout line? How will this tie in with the emergence of online delivery apps, which we recently explored? Will online grocery store delivery now include a bottle of liquor that can be ordered by your teenager?

We don’t yet know all the public health and safety problems we’ll face under this new court ruling, but we do know one thing: when we increase access to alcohol we increase its use among underage drinkers.

We also know that alcohol-impaired driving is a problem among young people. They aren’t binging on milk or soda then crashing a car, they are drinking alcohol and making dangerous decisions. Treating alcohol like other commodities and expanding youth access to it can be a deadly business.

For now, as this case winds its way through the courts, Texans won’t see any changes to liquor availability at large retailers….yet. Advocates should still stay on guard because once again, we find ourselves in a situation where business interests seem to be taking priority over the best interest of our communities and our kids.

The three-tier system “balances alcohol availability, price, and promotional practices” and is an important mechanism for enforcing existing regulations, according to Pam Erickson, former director of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. And yet, despite its major public health benefits, others are working to dismantle the three-tier system so they can increase their bottom line. In the meantime, we’re closely watching what happens and hope you’ll join us in our efforts to keep the system intact so our communities are healthy and safe for everyone.

If you have any questions, or to get involved, contact us at 512.442.7501 or TST@TexansStandingTall.org.

 

 

 

 

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