Washington liquor privatization initiative: What's the truth (part 2)

Oct 17, 2011
Originally published on October 15, 2011 3:20 pm

OLYMPIA, Wash. – A $20 million war over liquor privatization in Washington is filling the airwaves. Both sides of Initiative 1183 are serving up contradictory claims. One key point of contention: will liquor consumption go up if private retailers take over the sale of hard alcohol? The "No" campaign says it will.

If Initiative 1183 passes, state liquor stores will close and larger grocery stores will be allowed to sell booze. In fact, Washington's Office of Financial Management estimates the number of outlets selling spirits will increase by a factor of four.

An ad from the "No" campaign paints a dire picture if that were to happen:

"Problem drinking could increase as much as 48-percent."

It's a startling claim. But is it true?

That statistic comes from a Centers for Disease Control community taskforce report that came out earlier this year. The expert panel reviewed 21 studies from around the country and the world that looked at the impact of privatization on alcohol consumption. The conclusion:

"Overall the number of gallons of alcohol in the population increased by 48-percent," says the CDC's Robert Hahn.

He adds, if people are consuming more, "There's lots of evidence that when that happens excessive consumption increases."

Or, "problem drinking" in the words of the "No" campaign.

As a result of this finding, the independent taskforce recommended against further liquor privatization in the United States.

However, it's important to note this is not a recommendation from the Atlanta-based public health agency itself.

"CDC does the science of actually looking at the numbers, the taskforce interprets the numbers and draws conclusions based on them, says Randy Elder of the CDC.

The findings are currently undergoing scientific peer review and are subject to change.

Kathryn Stenger from the "Yes" on I-1183 campaign calls into question the taskforce conclusions. She notes most of the studies looked at wine consumption, not hard liquor and one study was a nearly 40 years old from Finland.

Here she is responding to my questions on TVW's "Inside Olympia" program.

"I'm saying there's no data within the United States looking at states in the U.S. who have privatized recently that bear out that consumption will increase."

Stenger is referring to Iowa and West Virginia. Those states privatized liquor sales more than 20 years ago. But the results are mixed.

At first consumption actually went down. As of 2007, West Virginians were drinking the same amount as when their state privatized.

Here's another case study: California has a private system and a much higher density of liquor stores, yet Washingtonians drink more hard alcohol than Californians.

On the Web:

Full text of Initiative 1138:


Yes on I-1183:


No on I-1183: http://protectourcommunities.com/index.php

Taskforce Report: http://www.thecommunityguide.org/alcohol/RRprivatization.html

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