By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — If the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had a say in whether Pennsylvania sells off its state-owned liquor stores, it'd likely vote to keep them around.
Recommendations from the federal agency's Community Preventative Services Task Force say turning over to the free marketing the sale of wine and liquor leads to excessive drinking. But these conclusions are disputed by other researchers and privatization supporters, who claim the CDC isn't looking at the right data.
The task force recommendations were included in a mid-August study on how much excessive drinking costs state economies and governments – about $224 billion annually nationwide, and about $8 billion in Pennsylvania, per 2006 figures.
"Fortunately, the Community Guide includes a number of effective strategies that states and localities can use to prevent binge drinking and the costs related to it," Robert D. Brewer, one of the authors of the report, said in a news release.
Those "strategies" include raising taxes and limiting alcohol sales. And, the guide says, states that control the sale of alcohol fare better than states where the free market is in control of alcohol sales.
"The maintenance of government control of off-premises sale of alcoholic beverages is one of many effective strategies to prevent or reduce excessive consumption, which is one of the leading causes of preventable death and disability," reads the task force's 2011 recommendation.
The CDC claims that when the free market sells alcohol, more alcohol becomes available at cheaper prices. That, the CDC says, leads to illegal sales to minors. Crunching number from multiple studies on privatization efforts of the '70s and '80s, the study cites a 44 percent median increase in per capita alcohol sales post-privatization.
But that's debatable, according to the alcohol industry. In a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed, Ray Scalettar, medical adviser to the Distilled Spirits Council and a George Washington University professor, said the CDC didn't take into account a national uptick in wine consumption when coming up with that 44 percent figure, skewing results.
Whether the CDC's recommendations hold water in Pennsylvania is dubious. Gov. Tom Corbett wants to get the state out of the liquor business. Though it didn't happen during the budget session, Corbett promised to keep the issue alive when lawmakers return to the Capitol for the fall session.
But there's no sign the governor's plans will be received favorably by Senate Republicans, who are more hesitant than House Republicans to get rid of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Democrats in both chambers favor keeping state control of its wine and liquor sales and turning the PLCB into a more profitable asset.
People who work at state-owned stores are public employees and represented by public-sector labor unions, who've lobbied against privatization efforts.
Anthony Davies, an associate professor of economics at Duquesne University who studies alcohol laws, said conclusions about increased consumption tend to wrongly focus on individual behaviors. Too much drinking, like too much television, sleeping or partying, carry a cost, he said.
Davies said government intervention in alcohol sales doesn't necessarily prohibit negative effects.
"What we do not see is what we would expect, which is more control leads to better outcomes," he said. "You find this with alcohol-related fatalities, you see it with underage drinking, you see it with binge drinking."
But, Davies said, that research is just like the CDC's. It's held up to prove a point.
"Things like the CDC report, or even the studies I've done, they seem to get thrown into the mix," he said. "Someone will cite it, and someone will cite a contradiction."