In Our View: Clues About Privatization

Liquor sales and distribution have changed, but don't jump to conclusions

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June 1 marked the one-year anniversary of Washington's privatized liquor distribution and sales, and this has impacted our state in many ways. Whether the changes are good or bad depends on the observer, but one thing is for certain: Voters got what they wanted; 58 percent (statewide and in Clark County) passed Initiative 1183 in 2011. The measure was favored in 35 of 39 counties.The change has been good for consumers who now benefit from huge increases in the number of liquor stores and variety of products. This competition and greater selection is proof of how the free market should be allowed to flex its strength in the liquor business, instead of a state-run monopoly dictating distribution policies and retail prices.

In Clark County, there now are about 76 stores licensed to sell liquor, up from 14 state-run liquor stores before privatization. Last month a second major retailer (Total Wine & More) opened near Westfield Vancouver mall, joining BevMo, which opened in east Vancouver the month before. These mega-stores offer thousands of different wines, distilled spirits and beer, plus more than 1,000 Washington state wines. Other large retailers such as Costco help lead the privatization parade.

Statewide, according to The Olympian newspaper, the availability of liquor has soared from 329 state-run or contracted stores to more than 1,400 private retailers.

It's still too soon to draw definitive conclusions about how this has improved or deteriorated the quality of life for Washingtonians, but some data from the first year provide clues about early fears of liquor privatization.

One warning was that consumption would increase sharply if booze were made more available. The Olympian story reported that statewide sales are averaging about 2.7 million liters a month, compared with 2.5 million liters before privatization. But that doesn't necessarily mean consumption has increased; it could be that customers are increasing their stockpiles of booze as the market has become more competitive.

One prediction was that state revenue would increase. About $392 million has been collected by the state in fiscal 2013, up from $309 million in fiscal 2011, and the total is expected to reach $425 million before the fiscal year ends on June 30.

Prices were predicted to increase, and they have. Each of three groups — retailers, distributors and distillers — blames the other groups. For sure, state fees are much higher. But most prices are slowly decreasing, and informed observers believe prices will drop more as competition continues.

Foes of I-1183 warned that consumption by minors would increase. It's still too early to tell, but store-by-store stings show illegal sales to minors have increased only slightly, if at all.

Others warned about increased carnage on roadways because of drunken drivers. But the Washington Traffic Safety Commission notes that the total of 53 fatal crashes involving a drunken driver in the second half of 2012 was lower than in the same six-month period in any of the previous five years, The Olympian reported. Again, though, it's too soon to tell.

Now that the system has changed, the remaining questions involve the people: Are we willing to change, too? Can we continue to stress moderation in alcohol consumption? Will we hold our children more accountable as alcohol becomes more available? Will we increase vigilance against drunken driving? Let us all hope the answer to each question is yes.