By Frank Anzalotti
Our nation’s relationship with regulations involves a careful balance of competing interests – demand for convenient, easy access to goods and services alongside the need for public safety. This dynamic affects every aspect of modern life, including oversight of retail alcohol sales.
For decades, Bay State officials have enforced laws and regulations that control the sale of beer, wine and spirits while diminishing undesirable effects caused by over-consumption. This strong regulatory approach has helped Massachusetts post the second-best record driving under the influence (DUI) and the lowest death rate for fatalities resulting from DUI, and according to the National Highway Transportation Administration.
Communities like Everett, it appears, approve reasonable limits on retail package store licenses, mandatory minimum prices for alcoholic beverages, and prohibitions on discounts for bulk purchases of alcohol.
This is confirmed by the results of a recent national poll commissioned by the Center for Alcohol Policy (CAP), which shows that a sizable majority oppose inexpensive alcoholic beverages in their local communities, and support stronger controls on products of high alcohol content. Those surveyed also said that states get it right when it comes to alcohol regulation, with 81 percent in support of the so-called three-tiered license system –producers, distributors, retailers – that has been in place here in the Commonwealth since the end of Prohibition. A majority of respondents spoke out against “bargain tactics” such as below-cost sale of ‘loss leader’ products while supporting limits on ownership of retail package stores because they see the impacts associated with mass marketing of adult beverages. Nearly two of three people who were polled said that licensing more package stores will only cause more problems.
Residents in Everett and across Massachusetts appear to understand that alcohol is a different product than others that requires a higher level of oversight. The public benefits from the enactment and enforcement of alcohol laws that protect health and public safety by seeking to reduce drunk driving and underage drinking while encouraging moderation.
The high level of support for strong controls on the alcohol industry makes it unlikely that Bay State lawmakers will loosen alcohol regulations anytime soon. Nevertheless, big-box beverage retailers are aggressively campaigning right here in Massachusetts to undercut the existing oversight system in search of larger profit margins.
A Maryland-based company that is leading the effort, one with $2.5 billion in reported annual alcohol sales, went so far as to declare “war” on the Commonwealth’s beverage laws earlier this year. The company’s strategy is illustrated by the “AstroTurf” initiative it launched during May under the label, “Consumers First.” The multi-billion-dollar retailer has paid for the entire campaign, including more than $100,000 in lobbying fees during 2016 and ongoing payments to a public relations firm that is managing the effort.
The corporation argues that by opening more package stores, it can boost employment. It also claims that by eliminating mandatory minimum prices, sales will rise along with excise tax collection.
Naturally, this corporate-funded smoke-and-mirrors campaign does not discuss how diminishment or elimination of existing controls on alcohol will impact public health and safety protections for families across the Commonwealth. There is no talk of whether additional licenses for big box retailers will lead to new jobs that offer a living wage with benefits or minimum hourly pay without health insurance. There is no discussion of whether it makes sense to reward large, national corporations that will export millions of dollars out-of-state at the expense of smaller, locally-owned “Main Street” businesses that continue to thrive across Everett.
Fortunately, the Commonwealth can see through the self-serving arguments of a corporate campaign. Limits on retail package store licenses, enforcement of mandatory minimum prices for alcohol, and prohibition of markdowns on bulk purchases of spirits ensures that Massachusetts will continue to provide appropriate safeguards for residents while protecting local businesses from out-of-state predators.
Frank Anzalotti is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, a not-for-profit organization that represents retail package stores in the Commonwealth.