Costco & I-1183: Subverting democracy and undermining public health

Health – what my friends are always drinking to before they fall down.  -Phyllis Diller

With prices up between 10 and 30 percent, it appears that the privatization of liquor in Washington didn’t work out for consumers.  Fortunately, as a nurse, advocating for cheap liquor isn’t in my job description.  However, advocating for the health of individuals and communities is.  For this reason, I-1183 has been absolutely maddening.  There is already consensus within public health circles that increases in the density of liquor outlets lead to increases in alcohol consumption, alcohol related deaths, and assaults.  Despite my awareness of this, I sometimes get naively optimistic and think that we are more civilized than to allow something like increased access to liquor change our drinking patterns… and then I visit the University District Safeway at midnight the first day liquor was available and am abruptly brought back to reality.  I walked into the store and found a crowd of college students (most already intoxicated) in front of nearly empty shelves.  According to the security guard, the shelves had already been restocked… twice… that evening.  Watching this Kirkland Signature™ brand legislation exacerbate an already man-made epidemic has been facepalmingly demoralizing.  I want to tell the state Supreme Court Justices that ruled in favor of the initiative, “I can treat alcohol poisoning.  I can do post-liver transplant care.  But as long as you keep perpetuating the conditions that lead to binge drinking and alcohol related liver failure, I’m just putting on very expensive band-aids at taxpayer expense.”  Policies like I-1183 make me feel like Sisyphus in scrubs.

A few days after the law went into effect, I was excited by what I read in the paper.  It turns out that most voters don’t have an elementary understanding of economics (SURPRISE!) and didn’t anticipate the extra fees on wholesalers and retailers being passed onto them.  In simpler terms, the fees drive up prices.  The sharp price hikes have been met by consumers with shock and indignation.  I did a (very unscientific) Twitter search to see what people were saying about the new law after it went into effect. @ChicoOffTheWall snarkily said, “Cheap liquor is the new expensive liquor.” @Igotjewels was more frank, “Selling liquor in the grocery store isn’t even tight, it’s fucking expensive.”  It was this reaction that got me thinking, “Hey, maybe I-1183 isn’t quite as bad as I thought.”  After all, one of the most effective strategies to reduce both consumption of alcohol and the associated harm is taxation.

Unfortunately, as there aren’t any examples where access to liquor and prices simultaneously increased, it is impossible to know the net effect this policy will have.  However, seeing consumer awareness of the higher prices leaves me relatively less discouraged.  Perhaps the negative health impacts associated with increased access will be mitigated by the increased costs.  I am particularly optimistic given that the drinking patterns of youth are most heavily influenced by price.  Regrettably, there won’t be any objective measure to see if this is the case for the next couple years.  Until then we can only wait and hope for the best.

So what can we learn from this?  @xlandsharkx hit the nail on the head by saying the day before I-1183 was enacted, “Go buy your liquor today cause it’ll be 30% more expensive tomorrow. Hey, as long as Costco’s fuckin happy then whatevs right?”  After spending $22 million dollars to effectively purchase this legislation, why wouldn’t they be?

Thanks to Washington State’s “have it your way” system for corporations and wealthy special interests (i.e., the initiative process), anyone or any group with money can put virtually anything (constitutional or not) on the ballot.  How?  By renting mercenaries to gather the needed signatures.  After that, all that is needed is a volley of misleading advertisements and voilà!  You have just dismantled the state’s liquor system.  I suppose one could (misguidedly) argue that corporate interests and the health of the community are not always mutually exclusive.  However, a look at recent initiatives passed shows that the initiative process is being hijacked by corporate interests at the expense of the public’s health.  The American Beverage Association (a front group for Coke and Pepsi) donated 99.99% of the $16.5 million spent to repeal a temporary tax on soda, candy, and bottled water (you know, the essentials).  Opposition groups were only able to raise a pathetic $390,000.  While such taxes are regressive, they are also an effective way to decrease consumption of these products.  As these products contribute to obesity, diabetes, and the destruction of the environment, we should be enacting policies geared towards encouraging less consumption.  That Coke can repeal what may have been an effective public health measure for the sake of their bottom line is a sign that government is organized to put the interests of corporations over the interests of the people.

Another example of the failure of the initiative process would be I-1098, a piece of legislation proposed by William Gates Sr.  It was an initiative that would have directed funds specifically to education and health services through the enactment of an income tax on individuals making over $200,000 a year and married couples or domestic partners making over $400,000.  It was killed by massive donations from (ironically) Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer ($325,000) and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos ($100,000), among others.  Yes Virginia, Amazon CEO/paranoid libertarian Jeff Bezos drops on one state initiative what a new teacher makes over 3 years in order to prevent the government from having the ability to pay teachers.  As long as corporations and wealthy individuals have the ability to write legislation specific to their interests and kill legislation contrary to their interests, the health of the community will be collateral damage.

The end result of I-1183?  Consumers feel cheated as they are paying more for liquor; public safety and the health of the community are jeopardized; craft distilleries are going under… But it all seemed to work out for Costco.  So let’s raise a pint (of Kirkland Signature vodka) to Costco, and pray that their plan to privatize liquor in Idaho is(nt) successful.  Oh, and for those that lose a loved one on the not-so-off chance that there are increased rates of death attributable to this legislation, Costco is having a great special on caskets… and 5 liter bottles of vodka to help you drown your sorrows as you cope with their senseless death.