Vice Squad
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Reducing Alcohol Consumption via Inconvenience

The licensing of vice sellers as a method to help enforce regulations and police externalities such as public nuisances passes muster with no less a fan of individual liberty than John Stuart Mill. Vice Squad might even go beyond Mill, and support seller licensing as a way to place a small barrier to vice availability. But the licensing restrictions upon carry-out alcohol in St. Georges, Utah, are beginning to put a substantial barrier in the way of alcohol acquisition.

The problem has worsened, according to this AP article, because of rapid population growth in the St. Georges area: there is one state liquor outlet for the town of 126,000 people. In Utah, wine, distilled alcohol, and any beer that contains more than 3.2 alcohol by weight can be sold only from a state-owned store.

Why don't they open more stores? Well, they are getting around to it, but state law doesn't require another store -- it only establishes the maximum number of stores across the state (one per 48,000 people), and doesn't concern itself with the intrastate liquor store distribution. Of course, you could drive for half an hour from St. Georges to Nevada to buy your booze, but according to the linked article, you could then face 6 months in prison when you cross back into Utah with your alcohol on board. (Recall the second section of the 21st Amendment: "The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.")

3.2 percent (by weight) or lower alcohol beer is more widely available in Utah. Few beers in the US, in their regular form, are this low in alcohol, but big brewers tend to manufacture 3.2 versions of their beers for sale in Utah and the other (three, according to this 2001 article) states that use the 3.2 figure for regulatory purposes. The 3.2 threshold is an artifact from the end of Prohibition. After FDR became president, he moved to amend the Volstead Act, the law which implemented the 18th Amendment's national alcohol prohibition. In April 1933, the Volstead Act was amended to permit 3.2 percent beer; before the end of the year, national prohibition was history. The state whose ratification put the 21st Amendment over the top, and hence ended Prohibition, was Utah.

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