In Our View: Get Tough on Liquor Sales

Privatized system won't work if underage access isn't tightly controlled

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Washingtonians made it abundantly clear in November 2011 that privatizing liquor sales was the consensus will of the people. Initiative 1183 passed in 35 of 39 counties, with 58.7 percent approval among voters statewide and 58.3 percent approval in Clark County.

One crucial question remains: Are we willing to implement the necessary control measures to make sure I-1183 does not become a net negative in our state, especially as it affects underage drinking? That question remains largely unanswered, in part because privatized liquor sales have been in effect for less than a year, too soon for reliable, scientific studies to yield valuable data. But already there is anecdotal evidence confirming what I-1183 critics warned everyone about. According to a recent Associated Press story, the Washington State Organized Retail Crime Alliance estimates there has been $18,000 to $20,000 in liquor thefts by adults and minors from mid-September through October. The report does not say if those theft statistics are higher or lower than usual, but the size of the problem is significant, and the increased availability of liquor through privatized sales cannot be ignored.

Also, The Olympian newspaper reports more teenagers in Thurston County are shoplifting liquor. No official data is available, and an increase in liquor thefts by teens can almost be expected because liquor now is sold in grocery and other stores. In the past, liquor was sold in state-controlled stores less frequented by underage drinkers. Still, the problem is real, and vigilance must be increased.

Some stores in the state are selling liquor in the same aisles as (or near) soft drinks and energy drinks, which are popular among teenagers. Other stores selling liquor for the first time don't keep the liquor in full view of cashiers or other store personnel. And the Crime Alliance statistics confirm that security measures are too lenient in many stores that are still in their first year of liquor sales.

Also, a recent Columbian story about tobacco sales is not totally unrelated to the issue of liquor sales. Almost 19 percent of Clark County retailers that were monitored from January to June sold tobacco to minors, according to the state Department of Health. Statewide, the out-of-compliance rate was 16 percent. Even if there is no information in this report about alcohol sales, it's only logical to conclude that, if a retailer is breaking the law by selling tobacco to minors, there's a good chance he or she also could be selling liquor to underage drinkers.

More troubling, those illegal-tobacco-sales numbers are on the rise. Three years ago, the violations were 10 percent statewide and 9 percent in Clark County.

The first and most important agent in controlling minors' access to liquor is the parent. Every family with a child in or approaching teen years should have a lengthy discussion about Initiative 1183. Also responsible are schools, which should be more alert to alcohol-related problems among students.

And in the case of illegal sales, retailers must -- if only to protect their own business future -- enforce laws governing liquor sales. Law enforcement agencies must intensify crackdowns, and prosecutors should impose tough penalties on violators.

Scientific studies will provide more instructive results after one full year of privatized liquor sales in our state. But immediately, strict control measures must be imposed, especially by parents and retailers. More than 30 other states have privatized liquor sales. Washingtonians must make sure such a capitalistic system succeeds in our state, too.