I got a press release today that got me thinking from the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA), a trade group that sometimes represents the same interests as the brewers and sometimes not. The NBWA, of course, represents the interests of the middle man, the beer distributor. A great distributor can do wonderful things for better beer if they care about what they’re selling. There are many instances where this has happened and many regions of the country with a vibrant beer culture owe much to the work of the beer distributors.
On the other hand, there are equally many, if not more, who care only about making a buck or selling only their major brand. Several years ago Anheuser-Busch — why is it always these guys? — instituted a program they called “share of mind” to get their beer distributors to sell only A-B beer and little or nothing else. This was good for them but terrible news for the hundreds of small breweries who also depend on distributors for the distribution of the beer. In many states, the distributor model is institutionalized in ways which leave the brewer no choice but a third-party beer distributor to sell their beers. Most of these laws were set up after prohibition and in many cases the laws themselves were written by big brewery lawyers. So it’s no surprise that most of the alcohol laws in this country favor them: they were after all designed that way. The idea was that it would do away with the violence and fighting that marked the prohibition period and also it would somehow benefit the consumer. How giving territorial monopolies to a business would benefit consumers is a bit of logic that has always been lost to me but that was the rationale, believe it or not. Here in California, for example, one of the ways it was supposed to level the playing field was by forcing the same pricing on all retailers so that larger retailers could not benefit from buying in bulk. Many devious ways have been created to get around these, of course, many of them even almost legal, but I’ll leave that for the moment. Suffice it to say that not all beer distributors are good for the beer community.
Today’s press release concerns a letter from the NBWA to the Surgeon General in response to a request from him regarding the issue of preventing underage drinking. Now the first, and to me most obvious, problem with that is that I don’t understand how underage drinking is a health problem? It’s not like smoking and getting lung cancer. There aren’t teens dying of liver failure, are there? (I know hazing has had its share of drinking related fatalaties but blaming the beer in those cases is like blaming the knife in a stabbing death). My point is that the age of consent for drinking is a policy decision. It was an arbitrary decision to determine at what age a person could legally drink. And the fact that a person can enter the military and die for his or her country but not have a beer is a travesty of the first order. We should at a minimum be willing to give all the rights and privileges of adulthood to anyone willing to lay down his life for us. That we don’t says something profound about our society’s priorities, which in my opinion are screwed up beyond redemption. I remember my three years of military service. We had a soda machine in our day room that dispensed canned beer. But the second we walked off the base, we were treated as children once more, and it was more than a little infuriating.
But I’m at a loss to think of what actual health problems are associated with drinking alcohol at twenty-one versus eighteen years of age. All the usual problems discussed concerning underage drinking are about rebellion, breaking laws and the like. They’re not health issues. So the fact that the Surgeon General is asking the NBWA for advice on underage drinking strikes me as very odd. If the NRA received a similar letter asking their advice about the problem of school shootings, the 2nd Amendment lobby would be up in arms — no pun intended — in protest. But in our puritanical society, fun always takes it on the chin. Anything people are enjoying must be curbed, and usually that’s done through some manufactured concern for the children. There are actually plenty of good arguments why the drinking age should be lowered, but I won’t go into them here. If you want to read more about that debate, here are some good links. [ NYRA / Alcohol Solutions / ASFAR / Both Sides ]
But okay, let’s set aside the ridiculousness of the request and take a look at the NBWA’s response. Here’s the bulk of their letter to the Surgeon General:
On behalf of the 1,800 members of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, I am heartened by the Surgeon General’s request for comments on the very serious issue of underage alcohol consumption.
Beer distributors, as family-owned local businesses, work diligently in their communities to promote moderate consumption and prevent underage drinking. Through, among other things, sponsoring public service announcements, working with law enforcement and school officials, distributing materials to help parents talk to their kids about alcohol consumption and providing retailers with training, signage and age-verification materials, beer distributors devote significant resources to the fight against underage drinking.
While these are worthwhile efforts that have helped to reduce and control the problem of underage drinking, the states’ ability to effectively restrict the sale and distribution of alcohol is the key to keeping beverage alcohol out of the hands of our youth.
Effective state regulation is under increasing attack as various economic interests attempt to deregulate alcohol and otherwise weaken the states’ abilities to strictly control alcohol sales. As a result, some states have been forced to open their borders to Internet sales of all alcohol beverages. Such anonymous access presents a major challenge to the states’ fight against underage drinking, as consumers receive deliveries from out-of-state sellers who can not be effectively regulated by the state.
Indeed, in a study released last year, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 10 percent of all minors have actually obtained alcohol over the Internet. In addition, numerous states have conducted “stings” to determine if kids are able to acquire alcohol online without being required to show photo identification or provide a signature. Time and again those stings unveiled the frightening ease with which a child of any age can easily obtain alcohol – most often, the brown, nondescript packages were simply left at the front door.
The 21st Amendment gives states the explicit authority to regulate alcohol within their borders. This amendment was designed to ensure states have the flexibility to regulate socially sensitive products accordingly to local norms and standards in order to promote responsible and moderate consumption and discourage abuse.
Special interests’ attempts to circumvent state requirements of regulated transactions occurring in licensed retail outlets are eroding a critical system of alcohol beverage control and putting state regulations at risk.
Beer distributors understand that the products they provide, while enjoyed by 90 million American adults, can cause devastating consequences if abused – especially by those under the legal drinking age. We are concerned that economic interests are slowly chipping away at state alcohol controls and the states’ ability to effectively regulate. This could result in long-term damage to the fight against underage drinking and abuse.
For these reasons, we respectfully request that unregulated alcohol sales and attempts to weaken state alcohol control be a central focus of the Surgeon General’s Call to Action regarding underage drinking issues. The states’ authority to regulate alcohol beverages must be reinforced.
In their response, they begin by going through the litany of various things they currently do to stop underage drinking. These typically involve signs, PSAa and talking to schools and educators. Yawn. If any of those really worked, this would have gone away by now. Anyway, most of what they give to retailers and schools were created by the breweries, not by them. I’m pretty sure the beer distributors have to take those steps either by law or for PR purposes. I don’t believe they’d do them if they weren’t required to in some way.
To be fair to them, I don’t even see why it’s their job at all. They sell beer to retailers who in turn sell it to the public. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the burden to be shifted to the retailer, who is actually the one selling it to minors? I know many retailers are also bound to follow strict selling guidelines to insure only adults buy certain products but it’s still usually the big breweries who produce the ad campaigns for them. That it’s the beer industry that preaches responsible drinking when it clearly runs contrary to the pursuit of profit has always seemed strange to me. But it’s largely because of the neo-prohibitionists who want to criminalize anything enjoyable that might be abused. Breweries can’t be seen as encouraging their customers to have more and more of their products because that would somehow mean encouraging abuse and would in turn give too much ammunition to an ever-vigilant minority who doesn’t want me to be able to have a beer after a long, hard day. These people bear watching, they’re dangerous. I see the whole responsible drinking public service campaigns as being the albatross of the industry, holding it down so it’s unable to fly. We should be able to celebrate wonderful beer and the joys of drinking openly without having to worry that if someone goes too far it can ruin things for everybody.
But then the letter turns interesting. The NBWA goes after interstate internet sales of alcohol as the real bogeyman. This is just hilarious. Forget for a second that telling the Surgeon General this is like telling your dentist about the pain in your foot, and look at their agenda. Internet sales are bad because they give kids access to alcohol. It couldn’t possibly be that what they call being “under increasing attack as various economic interests attempt to deregulate alcohol and otherwise weaken the states’ abilities to strictly control alcohol sales” is actually an economic threat to them? Of course it is. They’re pissed off about losing their own monopolies so they decided to make it an issue of underage drinking. This is so reprehensible that I’m almost speechless. Almost. I’ve had disagreements with the NBWA before and I’m sure I will again. Their ultimate interests are different than mine and that’s okay. But this one is just too out there and somebody has to call “bullshit” on them.
Opening up the states to internet shipping of alcohol made it possible for people to get beer from places where it wasn’t practical for it to be sold through regular channels. In many cases, the local beer distributors (NBWA members no doubt) refused to carry products they deemed would not be popular enough to justify the warehouse space for them. This is great news for consumers and for small breweries with niche market demand. It cut out the middle man — the beer distributors — and made it possible for brewers and the people who wanted their beer to get together one on one. You can see why that’s bad for the middle man. He’s left pretty much nowhere with a refrigerated warehouse full of Bud Dry nobody wants to drink. So let’s play the “it’s about the kids” card, but I’m not buying it and neither should you.
They claim that an NSA study showed “10 percent of all minors have actually obtained alcohol over the Internet.” So let’s look at those numbers. According to the 2000 Census data, there were 281,421,906 people in the total population and 196,899,193 who were 21 years of age or older (which is 70%). That leaves a minor population of 84,522,713. Ten percent of that is 8,452,271 minors who have bought alcohol over the internet. Does that figure seem reasonable to anyone? Then let’s also review what’s involved in “obtaining” alcohol over the internet. You’d need internet access, a credit card and a mailing address that matched the credit card (although I suppose you could claim it was a gift and were shipping it elsewhere). So you figure you’ve got to cut out all kids under a certain age, say nine and under, which is just under 4 million kids. Does every household have internet access. Not yet. Then there’s stealing (borrowing) a credit card or perhaps you may actually have your own if you’re college age or have rich parents. Then there’s where to have it shipped, not to mention the amount to be added to cover shipping (and even light beer is heavy when it comes to shipping). You’d have to choose a house where parents wouldn’t be home during delivery times and shipping alcohol requires an adult to sign for it, too, so you’ve got to figure a way around that problem, as well. So yes, a resourceful, motivated teenager could get it done, but it wouldn’t be all that easy and I find it very hard to believe eight and a half million kids pulled it off. Especially when the time-honored tradition of asking an older brother or uncle to buy beer for you is still the bet bet going, and is so much faster and cheaper and less risky that the idea of using the internet in this way becomes laughable.
In the end, using states’ rights to fight even an imagined health problem — it’s not a health problem but that is still implicit from its source — is prima facie ridiculous. In fact, the entire chain of logic in this whole debate seems surreal to me. First, the Surgeon General of the United States, the top “doc” in the country, asks for advice about what is not even a health problem but a societal one to an organization with no ties to health or, in fact, the problem. After all, beer distributors are middle men: they don’t make the beer and they don’t sell it to the public. Then these middle men respond by saying the way to protect our kids from the evils of underage drinking is to return states’ rights to them and allow them to keep their monopolies and not allow you and me to buy Rodenbach Grand Cru from New York State (since I can’t get it in California — there’s no distributor here) because there’s a small chance the kid who lives down the block might try to order beer over the internet for his next party. I confess I’m really quite tired of giving up my rights as an adult so that children will be protected. Not only does it not ever work, but we should not be willing to create a society that’s fit only for kids on the off chance that a child will have access to something we’ve decided he shouldn’t see, or hear or taste. There’s already a mechanism in place to combat those problems and it’s worked pretty well for millennia — it’s called parenting. I’m an adult. I want to live in an adult world. I don’t want anybody telling me or my child what’s good and what’s bad for him. That’s my job. And now what I really want is a bottle of Rodenbach Grand Cru. Please, for the love everything good, somebody send me a bottle before it’s too late.