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Beer Sampling Coming to Wisconsin

Surprisingly, in the great state of Wisconsin — okay, you caught me, I’m a Packers fan — retail stores can sample customers on wine, but not beer. But now Assembly Bill 122 is winding its way through the state legislature. So far it has “passed unanimously out of the Senate Affairs Committee and will be scheduled soon for a full floor vote.” If passed, beer retailers will be able to sample customers on two 3-oz. samples.

Retailers and small breweries will benefit most if the bill becomes law, because it will greatly increase opportunities for consumers to try new products, possibly for the first time. Regular Bulletin readers will not be shocked to learn that not everyone is so thrilled about the proposed law. To wit, from an article in the Green Bay Press Gazette.

But some in law enforcement and alcohol abuse prevention fear it’s bad public policy.

Wisconsin has the highest rate of binge drinkers in the country.

“There are a lot of places in our community for people to get a drink,” said Portage County District Attorney Tom Eagon. “People with alcohol issues can’t stop at one or two. One of the ways they deal with their problem is to avoid situations where they will be tempted. A grocery store should be a safe place.”

“A grocery store should be a safe place?!?” What the hell does that even mean? Safe for whom? People who can responsibly enjoy a 3-oz. sample of beer should be punished because others can’t? Does that make any sense? This is the mentality that passes for law enforcement? Let’s restrict all citizens because some people abuse themselves. What great policy thinking. It would appear Mr. Eagon has never been to a bar, because he suggests that having a sample is the same as any of the other “places in our community for people to get a drink.” I’m not entirely sure he understands what sampling is, but I’m certainly glad he’s not looking out for my best interests.

Then, of course, there’s the inevitable “it’s for the kids” gambit.

Some argue, however, that having beer available at the grocery store sends the wrong message to kids shopping with their parents.

“The environment we create for our young people is critical to their long-term health,” said Lauri Rockman, the coordinator of Portage County’s Coalition for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention. “We need positive adult modeling. Making alcohol part of a trip to the grocery store is just another way to make it so pervasive and casual in our culture.”

Yes, by all means we wouldn’t want our kids seeing “positive adult modeling” that involves alcohol. She’s fallen into her own neo-prohibitionist trap that sees all behavior involving alcohol as inherently negative. It’s impossible for her to recognize that an experience with alcohol could be positive. But it’s just as reasonable to argue that Wisconsin may have the highest “rate of binge drinkers” (though I can’t imagine how you could accurately measure such a claim) precisely because kids never see adults engaged in responsible, moderate drinking.

And the most egregious part of these nay-sayer’s arguments is that they all fail to account for the fact that in Wisconsin it’s already legal to sample wine and yet none of these predicted problems have come to pass. Groceries are already not safe from wine and kids already see wine pervasively and casually as part of a trip to the grocery store. Has the sky fallen as a result? Let’s take a look outside the window. Nope, it’s still there.

What this does illustrate quite starkly, however, is the very different perceptions people hold about wine vs. beer. Wine, on average, has almost three times the percentage of alcohol as beer, yet there are no (or at least) less perceived societal problems associated with it. Beer, on the other hand, is continually demonized as the root of all evil. The way to change that perception should be simple, and allowing sampling should be a good step toward such change. But that also assumes that beer is not under constant attack which, with so many neo-prohibitionists at work today, it so often seems to be.

Whenever there’s a potentially positive story about alcohol, such as this one, it is undermined. Allowing sampling increases awareness, education and possibly the availability of non-binge beers (because no one’s going to be sampling Corona). That would increase the market share of craft beer and better imports, beers which generally speaking are less prone to quaffing at huge frat parties. This in turn, could lead to more responsible drinking and a lowering of Wisconsin’s binge-drinking statistical infamy. So that should make this a story to be celebrated, shouldn’t it? Yet of the article’s 472-word count, 281 of them — or just under 60% — are given over to people and groups voicing objections instead of examining the positive aspects. I’m sure the newspaper is just trying to be fair and balanced in their reporting. But if that’s true, why doesn’t every negative beer article give the other side of that story? Because there are plenty of responsible, upstanding citizen beer drinkers. We just never hear about them.

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