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The Alcohol Industry's Plan to Give America a Giant Drinking Problem

Industry giants are threatening to swallow up America's carefully regulated alcohol industry, and remake America in the image of booze-soaked Britain.

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When these laws were passed, America was a century closer to its English roots, and lawmakers remembered very clearly the effects that a vertically integrated alcohol industry had on pre-Prohibition America (and that it still has in the UK today). In the 1920s, Americans had learned the hard way that flat out banning drinking empowered the likes of Al Capone and was, on balance, unworkable. But it made no sense either to go back to the world of pre-Prohibition America, in which big, politically powerful liquor producers owned their own saloons and were therefore free to pour cheap booze into communities coast to coast, sweetening the doses with enticements ranging from rebates on drinks to cash loans, and frequently tolerating in-bar gambling and prostitution.

And so, for eighty years, the kind of vertical integration seen in pre-Prohibition America has not existed in the U.S. But now, that’s beginning to change. The careful balance that has governed liquor laws in the U.S. since the repeal of Prohibition is under assault in ways few Americans are remotely aware of. Over the last few years, two giant companies—Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, which together control 80 percent of beer sales in the United States—have been working, along with giant retailers, led by Costco, to undermine the existing system in the name of efficiency and low prices. If they succeed, America’s alcohol market will begin to look a lot more like England’s: a vertically integrated pipeline for cheap drink, flooding the gutters of our own Gin Lane.

Amoment’s thought makes it obvious that alcohol is different from, say, apples. Apples don’t form addicts. Apples don’t foster disease. Society doesn’t bear the cost of excessive apple consumption. Society does bear the cost of alcoholism, drink-related illness, and drunken violence and crime. The fact that alcohol is habit forming and life threatening among a substantial share of those who use it (and kills or damages the lives of many who don’t) means that a market for it inevitably imposes steep costs on society.

It was the recognition of this plain truth that led post-Prohibition America to regulate the alcohol market as a rancher might fetter a horse—letting it roam freely within certain confines, neither as far nor as fast as it might choose.

The UK, by contrast, spent most of the last eighty years fussing with the barn door while the beast ran wild. It made sure that every pub closed at the appointed hour, that every glass of ale contained a full Queen’s pint, that every dram of whiskey was doled out in increments precise to the milliliter—and simultaneously allowed the industry to adopt virtually any tactic that could get more young people to start drinking and keep at it throughout their lives. It is no coincidence that one of the first major studies to prompt a shift in Britain’s approach to liquor regulation, published in 2003, is titled Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity.

The UK’s modern drinking problem started appearing in the years following World War II. Some of the developments were natural. Peace reigned; people wanted to have fun again; there was an understandable push toward relaxing wartime restrictions and loosening puritan attitudes left over from the more temperance-minded prewar years.

But other changes were happening that deserved, but did not get, a dose of caution. As the nation shifted to a service and banking economy, and from agricultural and industrial towns to modern cities and suburbs, social life moved from pubs to private homes and shopping moved from the local grocer, butcher, and fishmonger to the all-in-one supermarket. In the 1960s, loosened regulations led to a boom in the off-license sale of alcohol—that is, store-based sale for private consumption, as opposed to on-license sale in public drinking establishments. But whereas pubs were required to meet certain responsibilities (such as refusing to serve the inebriated), and had their hours of operation strictly regulated (for example, having to close their doors temporarily in the afternoon, to prevent all-day drinking), few limits were placed on off-licenses.

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