Commentary

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A proposed constitutional amendment seeks to get Pa. out of the state-run booze business. It’s not that easy

A state liquor store front in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison).

By Kate L. Nolt

Earlier this month, a state House committee advanced a proposed amendment to Pennsylvania’s constitution removing state oversight of wine and liquor sales from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

As with many legislative decisions, the effects on the health of the public are rarely discussed at the forefront.  It is critical that the public health and safety concerns related to this change now be transparently debated. As a Pennsylvania resident, mother of three and public health expert with more than two decades of population health experience, I feel compelled to speak out.

The lack of transparency on the collateral outcomes to Pennsylvania residents renders an informed decision by voters impossible. Should State run liquor stores be eliminated by the passing of this amendment, Pennsylvania residents should be clear on the likely results of such a political move.

Privatization has occurred in other states and countries and the resulting public concerns related to privatization are well documented.

For example, in states with privatized liquor, 44 percent more alcohol sales (proxy for consumption) occurred, and communities have experienced significant challenges to the public’s health as a result. An increase in the number of liquor stores in their neighborhoods has brought unwelcome public disturbances.

While proponents of privatization will argue that it will lead to an increase in collected funds through taxing, the accumulated funds are not funneled back into the communities to address issues such as an increase in underage drinking and an increase in unemployment of the state workers who lost their jobs.

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Increased alcohol consumption has also been linked with an increase in liver disease, domestic violence, reduced productivity, and poor academic and work performance. States that have removed alcohol sales from government oversight have found their communities reporting an influx of new liquor stores in their neighborhoods. This is particularly true in historically underserved communities and in urban centers where liquor stores tend to congregate when market forces are left to determine where alcohol will be sold.

The citizens of Pennsylvania reap many benefits from the state system, whether they drink alcohol or not. The revenues from the sale of the product go to support alcohol prevention and treatment programs and support the state police for alcohol enforcement. The state General Fund also grows from these monies. Essential services that would otherwise need to come from the taxpayers of the state will be affected.

Removing the state as the seller of liquor, means these revenues would now go to private businesses instead of the residents of Pennsylvania.

We need only look to Washington State that privatized its liquor sales in 2011 through a referendum to know what could be ahead for Pennsylvania if this amendment passes.

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In Washington, liquor establishments increased by five times (330 to 1600 and is still growing), and price of the product increased considerably because the tax on the product increased to cover General Fund shortfalls, which were then passed onto the consumer.  Now 20 percent of Washington voters regret their decision, citing these and other issues in the state for why they would change their vote.

Wine and liquor sales in the Commonwealth lead by the state is a best practice for preventing alcohol related harms such as reduced underage drinking and less binge or heavy drinking.  Independent health experts and the evidence generated from states using the state-run model supports these findings.

 At a time when we are seeing record high alcohol consumption, harms to communities that funnel acute alcohol related accidents to our emergency rooms and increased alcohol related traffic incidents on our roadways, should a hasty political decision on an issue that warrants a robust policy discussion and input from communities and residents be considered?

A two-sentence proposed amendment does not adequately reflect the complex nature of this issue both from economic and health perspectives.

If there is truly an interest in modernizing Pennsylvania’s liquor system, then the Legislature should first undertake a task force or study with representation from all interested parties, including current retailers and employees, existing licensees, law enforcement and health experts and other relevant stakeholders. Other states have utilized this approach recently, including New York State, Maryland, and Alaska with promising success.

Pennsylvanians deserve better than a rush to the ballot for an underdeveloped, ill-conceived, and vague proposal. It is time for the Legislature to consider the impact this amendment may have on communities throughout Pennsylvania, rather than the current approach, which appears to be motivated by political self-service rather than what’s in the best interests of all Pennsylvanians.

Kate L. Nolt is an assistant professor of Public Health & Healthcare Management at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.

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