Maggie and I have lived in Wallace, a hamlet in Idaho’s narrow northern panhandle, since 1997. Though Wallace is much closer to Montana, to the east, than to Washington State, to the west, our local TV news and advertising comes out of Spokane. Consequently, we’ve been exposed of late to Washington’s current flood of political TV ads about Proposition 1183 — a hotly contested and apparently amply bankrolled battle over the proposed privatization of the state’s monopoly control of distilled spirits’ sales. For a sociologist with an interest in alcohol, this is turning out to be a feast of pro and con advocacy rhetoric. I’m going to be a little sorry when the November 8th, 2011 election finally rolls around and all the ads, web pages, reports, and other suasive efforts cease.(1)
Not the least interesting aspect of this contest is that it has provided an avenue for airing some features of the public health model of alcohol problems to an American audience. The public health model has been fashionable in alcohol science and especially alcohol epidemiology since the 1980s but has nevertheless had relatively little penetration into U.S. popular discourse about alcohol problems. When Americans think of alcohol problems we still think chiefly of alcoholism, not per capita consumption.
Anti-1183 ads have cited a CDC estimate that privatization may increase distilled spirits consumption by 48 percent. Conscientious voters who take the trouble to track down the source of this estimate — at the CDC’s “Community Guide” web page on alcohol privatization — will find themselves reading about, among other things, Sully Ledermann’s old distributionist hypothesis. “According to the Single Distribution Theory,” says this CDC web page,
patterns, or “distributions,” of alcohol consumption are similar across many societies, such that most people drink a small or moderate amount and some people drink a large amount. Because of this pattern, when per capita—or average—consumption changes in a society, consumption changes across the board, but mostly among those who drink excessively. There is extensive evidence supporting the Single Distribution Theory, which allows the inference made in this review that when privatization results in substantial per capita increases in consumption, there are at the same time substantial increases in excessive consumption. One study in the body of evidence on privatization exemplifies the single distribution theory: a cohort study in Finland found that, following the privatization of medium-strength beer, there were increases in alcohol consumption at all levels, including excessive consumption.
Ledermann Model or no Ledermann Model, however, my hunch is that Prop. 1183 will pass. A similar measure on the 2010 ballot failed, but not by much (53 percent, no; 47 percent, yes). Since 2010, backers of 1183 at CostCo Corp. have changed a number of the earlier measure’s elements that Washington voters disliked. Should 1183 indeed pass then Washington will become yet another inviting “natural experiment” and testing ground for the evaluation of alternative forms of alcohol regulation. (Get ready, Kettil Bruun Society!)
One question for researchers will be whether the CDC’s anticipated increase in spirits consumption will actually come to pass. According to NIAAA’s state-level statistics, Washington consumed 0.74 gallons of absolute ethanol per capita via spirits in 2009 (also, 1.09 gallons ethanol via beer and 0.51 gallons via wine). This placed Washington’s spirits consumption exactly at the U.S. national average. Washington’s spirits consumption also placed it:
- marginally lower than neighboring Oregon’s consumption (0.82 gallons), also a monopoly state;
- about the same as California’s (0.73), not a monopoly state; and
- marginally higher than neighboring Idaho’s (0.70), a monopoly state.
Were Washington’s spirits consumption to rise by CDC’s suggested 48 percent estimate – or to about 1.10 gallons per capita – then it would join the ranks of:
- Wyoming (1.10), semi-monopoly state, state-contracted stores;
- Nevada (1.15);
- Wisconsin (1.16);
- North Dakota (1.16); and
- Alaska (1.16)
Yet Washington’s consumption would still lag behind:
- Delaware (1.25);
- New Hampshire (1.82), a monopoly state; and
- the District of Columbia (1.64).
(Cross-border sales artifacts apply to some of the above.)
But will spirits consumption actually rise that much if 1183 passes?
Only distilled spirits sales are monopoly controlled in Washington, not beer or wine. This means that beer and wine are easily available on grocery store shelves whereas liquor must be bought in government run or supervised stores. An extra trip to another store represents an inconvenience factor to consumers. There are, moreover, only about 325 government run liquor stores sprinkled throughout the state. Substantial increases in the number of outlets, hours of sale, and consumer convenience are anticipated with 1183’s passage.
What impact on consumption will these changes have? In 2009, about 32 percent of Washington’s total ethanol consumption was drunk in the form of spirits; that figure presumably reflected in part the consumption-reducing impact of the consumer inconvenience factor for spirits. Yet in the same year spirits constituted about the same proportion of total ethanol consumption in sister Pacific Coast state, California (31 percent); and California is not a monopoly state, hence no inconvenience factor. This comparison suggests that alcohol consumption in general and spirits consumption in particular may be driven by deeper cultural sources – i.e., by consumer norms and habits that are not as readily responsive to greater convenience and lower price as the CDC’s estimate suggests. (If non-monopoly California’s consumption were to provide a more or less accurate model for the impact of Washington Prop. 1183, then Washington’s post-1183 spirits consumption would hardly change at all.)
In 2009, Bill Rorabaugh published in the Pacific Northwest Quarterly a lovely paper on the deep historical roots of Washington State’s monopoly system.(2) More recently, I asked Bill, via email, about Washington’s special place respecting alcohol and alcohol studies on the U.S. cultural map.(3) Bill replied:
In 1910 half of Washington’s population was foreign-born, which is fairly typical of a non-southern state, but half of that half was Scandinavian, which is not typical. When you add in the secondary migration from the Upper Midwest and US-born children of Scandinavian immigrants, the state was about 35-40 percent Scandinavian. The state was strongly Protestant and was one of the strongholds of Prohibition. It was also early to grant women’s suffrage. So the local repealers really did fear the return of the saloon (loggers) and a massive reaction. The fluke factor is that Admiral Gregory, who headed the WSLCB in the 1930s, produced model annual reports filled with wonderful data. This was commented on in After Repeal (1935), the Rockefeller followup study. So it was all a matter of circumstances and luck. The researchers followed.(4)
How much of this historical legacy regarding alcohol will still have meaningful salience in Washington’s post-1183 environment? Will history and culture be effectively nullified by 1183’s passage and greater consumer convenience? Or will the juggernaut of culture override convenience, so that spirits consumption increases substantially less than expected? Not to be forgotten: spirits’ new market circumstances may prompt a post-election rebound from anti-1183 groups, soon raising new issues and concerns for future political consideration. It’s happened before in alcohol history.
Will consumer convenience or culture and history matter more in determining Washington’s post-1183 spirits consumption level? It will be interesting to see. Then again Proposition 1183 isn’t going to pass just because I expect it to.(5)
(1) See here for a sampling.
(2) Rorabaugh, W.J., “The origins of the Washington State Liquor Control Board,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 100 (Fall):159-168, 2009.
(3) The state has a special relationship to alcohol as a public problem is several respects. To name a few examples of this:
- Milton A. Maxwell’s early studies of (a) drinking behavior in the general population, (b) popular attitudes toward alcoholism, and (c) the culture of Alcoholics Anonymous. (I read all of Maxwell’s work appreciatively at the Alcohol Research Group in Berkeley when I started working there.)
- The Schick and Shadel alcoholism treatment tradition, with its early emphasis on behaviorism and aversive conditioning.
- Norman Clark’s, The Dry Years: Prohibition and Social Change in Washington.
- Bill Rorabaugh’s alcohol-related body of work.
- The late Alan Marlatt’s Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington.
- The University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.
I’m sure more might be listed.
(4) Email, Rorabaugh to the author, July 18, 2011, used with permission.
(5) Download recent poll.