When you walk into an Idaho liquor store, in addition to the array of alcoholic beverages available for purchase, you may find a stack of pamphlets issued by the Idaho State Liquor Division (ISLD). Although a portion of their content is purely informational, outlining the ISLD's history, income, expenses and distribution of funds to state programs, a significant portion of the text is devoted to arguments that attempt to justify the state control of liquor sales and distribution.
One leaf of the pamphlet describes purported benefits of state liquor control, including a lower per-capita consumption of alcohol than in states that have legalized private sales, fewer alcohol-related deaths, safer roads and lower crime. The only citations for these claims, however, are to reports by organizations that have an interest in keeping liquor sales in the hands of the government—the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association and the Marin Institute, a California-based group that recently renamed itself Alcohol Justice and aims to restrict liquor sales as much as possible.
According to Duquesne University economist Antony Davies, however, those claims misrepresent the truth. In a survey of dozens of studies examining the availability of liquor in relation to markers of social health, Davies pointed out that there is at least as much data, if not more, demonstrating the opposite.
"These and other 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," Davies wrote. "Studies that show relationships are counterbalanced by other studies, of the same data, that show no relationship. Some studies that show relationships may suffer from unaddressed statistical anomalies that bias results in favor of finding relationships where none exist. Studies that show relationships also suffer from unaddressed causality, making the results useless for guiding policy makers."
The ISLD pamphlet also devotes a spread to quotes from city and county officials singing the praises of revenue from liquor sales for use in their budgets. This highlights conflicting goals of the ISLD, which on one hand touts its temperance mandate, suggesting that state control reduces overall liquor consumption, and on the other showcases the amount of money it generates for government use, even going so far as to say that the agency's vision "is to be the most respected and highest performing purveyor of distilled spirits in the USA."
Leonard Gilroy, director of government reform for the Reason Foundation, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing a free society, called this tension an "obvious conflict of interest." He also suggested that the ISLD's temperance mandate is almost irrelevant when one considers the wide array of alcoholic beverages that are available through ordinary retail outlets.
"About 60-70 percent of pure alcohol sold comes via beer and wine," Gilroy wrote in an email to IdahoReporter.com. "So if you're only 'controlling' a class of product (distilled spirits) that accounts for a relatively small share of alcohol bought and consumed, what's the point? This is the basic reason that control states don't have significantly different social cost outcomes than license states: The control doesn't apply but to a small slice of a much larger market."
For Roy Eiguren, lobbyist for the Northwest Grocers Association (NWGA), the pamphlet represents taxpayer-funded advocacy for a particular position within a current political debate. The NWGA expressed interest late last year in sponsoring a liquor privatization initiative, and has said it will work with state officials during the next legislative session to pass a bill legalizing private retail liquor sales.
"It seems inappropriate for a state agency—within the executive office of the governor—to be using state funds to advocate in favor of one side of a two-sided public policy debate that may be before the Idaho Legislature during its 2013 session," Eiguren said.
ISLD Director Jeff Anderson said, however, that pamphlets like these have been printed for years and are not intended as an intervention in NWGA's lobbying efforts.
"We've been producing those for a couple, three years now," Anderson said, before anybody from NWGA had begun talking about privatization in Idaho. "They're just designed to inform the public what we're up to and why we do what we do." He also said that the pamphlets are not expensive—a few hundred dollars, he estimated, although he didn't have exact figures readily available. "We produce enough to have a handful in every store and one in the pocket of every legislator each legislative session."
Wayne Hoffman, executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, said he's not convinced that the ISLD intends the pamphlet to be purely informational rather than a tool of political persuasion.
"The debate about letting the private sector run Idaho's liquor stores has been going on for years," Hoffman said. "The only reason for distributing the pamphlet is to sway the public and to lobby for the agency's continued existence over better free-market alternatives."
Note: IdahoReporter.com is published by the Idaho Freedom Foundation.