In Alcohol Politics, Consumers Are a Threat

Usually, when one player in the alcohol marketplace —the distributors, producers, retailers, etc.—want something from politicians, when they want something changed, they walked into a legislator’s office, close the door and start talking. Then they walk down the hall and do it again. And again. They lobby. They might throw some money at the problem. But it all pretty much happens behind closed doors.

What you rarely see in alcohol politics is a player make a public threat that if something isn’t changed, something bad will happen. Well, just such a thing occurred in Oregon last week and the threat probably reverberated across the country.

Last Wednesday, Joe Gilliam, the lobbyist for the Northwest Grocers Associations, sat in a committee meeting in Salem, Oregon and told the lawmakers listening that if they did not take action in 2013 to privatize the state’s sale of spirits, his clients would launch an public initiative effort in 2014 to do so, a la Washington State’s recent Initiative 1183 that privatized the sale of spirits in Oregon’s neighbor to the North.

Gilliam, in fine populist fashion, put it this way: “We’re at that watershed. Are we going to preserve the system, or are we going to meet the needs of customers?”

It’s important to appreciate the nature of this threat. It’s extraordinarily rare to have alcohol laws set or changed via public initiative. It’s almost always a process that takes place behind closed doors and controlled by the players, not the pubic. Putting alcohol control decisions in the hands of he public largely removes political power from groups that have cultivated it for decades, primarily wholesalers. It’s not surprise that currently, the biggest threat wholesalers around the country see is what they call “deregulation through privatization.”

It’s also no surprise that in response to Gilliam’s threat,  the head of the Oregon Beer and Wine Distributors Association, Paul Romain, opposed any “rash decisions”.

If Oregonians are given the chance to vote on whether or not the state should get out of the business of selling liquor, consumers will vote for privatization. Likewise, if voters in Pennsylvania, where privatization spirits and beer and wine sales is under discussion, are give the chance to vote on getting the state out of the booze selling business, they will vote to do just that.

What is truly fascinating here is that at least where alcohol is concerned, the idea of giving consumers and voters the power to decide what they want, rather than leave it to lobbyists and the legislature, is considered a “threat”.

If you are interested to discover just how volatile the issue of allowing voters to determine the state of alcohol distribution can be, just look at the comments section of Harry Esteve’s story on this issue in the Oregonian.


One Response

  1. Joel Goldberg - September 18, 2012

    Tom, you’ve nailed this. On many issues, there’s a natural political alliance between wine producers — who want to see their products reach market with the fewest possible encumbrances and middleman markups — and consumers, who want the easiest possible access to those products at the lowest possible prices. The one thing that’s kept this alliance from reflecting itself in legal reality has been the ability of the entrenched opposition (we all know who they are) to bring its political firepower to bear whenever threatened. But if producers were willing and able to throw the same resources into development of an ongoing alliance with consumers — an alien concept to most normal industries — I’m convinced that balance could be tipped.

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