LCB privatization foes unleash new tool in debate

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Opponents of privatizing state liquor stores may have a powerful new weapon in their fight.

An independent task force of health professionals named by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a recommendation this week that governments should not privatize liquor sales, saying studies show it will lead to increased alcohol consumption and negatively impact public health.

The Task Force on Community Preventive Services, a 12-member group of national medical and public health experts, agreed to the recommendation in February but just issued its final statement Monday. It changed course from the last time it studied the issue, in 2006-07, when it found insufficient evidence of a link between privatization and increased drinking.

Anti-privatization forces already plan to use the report as part of their dossier on the negative societal impacts that they argue could come with commercial liquor sales.

"It's not a surprise to us," said Stephen Erni, executive director of the Pennsylvania DUI Association. "Going from state control to private will only see an increase in consumption and, most importantly for us, an increase in highway crashes and fatalities."

The report comes as state legislators led by Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, plan to make a renewed bid to get the state out of the liquor business while also generating an estimated $2 billion budget infusion from the sale of licenses. Gov. Tom Corbett also supports the concept.

The CDC is not a regulatory agency, and its task force recommendations are only meant to give scientific background to lawmakers, educators and others working on public health matters. The task force's privatization report still needs to go through peer review, which could take about a year, but the recommendation is still final, according to coordinating scientist Robert Hahn.

Excessive drinking causes 79,000 deaths per year in the U.S., the CDC has repeatedly warned, making it the third-largest cause of preventable death in the country and a major public health matter.

In the findings released this week, the task force said it reviewed 21 studies on the impact of alcohol privatization on the per capita consumption of the beverages, as indicated by jumps in alcohol sales tax and tax data. Overall, the studies found a median increase of 48.2 percent in alcohol consumption after privatizing.

Based on a review of the studies, the task force recommended "against the further privatization of alcohol sales in settings with current government control of retail sales, based on strong evidence that privatization results in increased per capita alcohol consumption, a well-established proxy for excessive consumption."

The state Liquor Control Board is not taking a position on privatization but has long argued, similarly, that increasing the number of liquor outlets beyond its own stores would lead to increased drinking.

"Here's another health organization, if not the biggest public health organization, recognizing again this is definitely the case," said the board's spokeswoman, Stacey Witalec.

Mr. Erni said his group, which is part of an anti-privatization consortium called We Can't Afford It PA, is going to issue the task force report as part of a collection of research on the issue to every member of the Legislature.

Other research supplied by supporters of liquor privatization, including the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, has cast doubt on such "per capita" studies, saying the sales data they use contain few direct, scientific links to societal problems.

Similar studies "suggest that there is no clear evidence that privatization of alcohol markets leads to decreased social measures -- whether consumption, underage drinking or DUI fatalities," said a recent paper by Duquesne University economics professor Antony Davies.

The task force's recommendation, too, says direct research on alcohol-related medical harm from privatization is limited. It notes also that the effect of increased consumption is just one factor that policy-makers have to consider in weighing privatization, along with boosting government revenues and providing consumers with better choices and convenience.

The CDC said most of the evidence regarding the effects of privatization is from several states and Canada. Although the specifics of privatization differ from state to state, the study said, consistent results across locations indicate that the findings are likely to apply broadly.

In the United States as of 2010, just Pennsylvania and Utah retained exclusive government control over off-premises wine retail sales. Those states and six others, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Alabama, North Carolina, and Vermont, retain exclusive government control of off-premises retail sales of distilled spirits.

Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia retain government control of off-premises retail sales of distilled spirits above a specified level of alcohol content.

The Task Force on Community Preventive Services was established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1996 to offer guidance on public health and disease prevention matters. Task force members are chosen by the director of the CDC.

The preliminary findings are available at: www.thecommunityguide.org/alcohol/RRprivatization.html


Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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