What happens, when the alcohol industry gets a free pass at writing an alcohol law? New York poses a sad and cynical example with the latest recommendations to ‘update’ the state alcohol law…

In Albany, New York Governor Cuomo announced the  recommendations of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Law Working Group, releasing their report on April 13, 2016.

The Alcoholic Beverage Control Law Working Group is a controversial group of “alcoholic beverage industry experts” assembled to review ways to modernize and simplify New York’s 80-year old Alcoholic Beverage Control Law. The composition of the group clearly shows that public health and safety, as well as societal development were not part of the considerations.

In fact, by design they were eliminate from the outset, to give way for a single-minded focus on the interests of the alcohol industry. The list of members of the group reads like a who is who of Big Alcohol in the Big Apple:

  • New York City Hospitality Alliance,
  • North American Breweries
  • Southern Wine & Spirits
  • New York State Liquor Store Association
  • New York State Beer wholesalers Association
  • Brooklyn Brewery
  • Food Industry Alliance of New York State
  • New York Wine & Grape Foundation
  • New York Alliance of Fine Wine Wholesalers
  • Empire State Restaurant & Tavern Association

In addition to these Big Alcohol stakeholders covering producers, distributors, retailers and industry front groups, there were also law firms in the group.

Obviously, the focus was not to update the state alcohol law to improve the prevention and control of the massive burden of alcohol harm in New York state. The ill-informed focus was on boosting an already quite unregulated industry. That should caution anyone reading the news and governor Cuomo’s statements about the work of the group.

Working collaboratively with all stakeholders, this administration has taken important steps to cut red tape, roll back burdensome recommendations and help this industry continue to grow, thrive and create jobs in New York.

I thank the members of this group for their work and their recommendations on how to continue this progress and look forward to reviewing its findings.”Following the third Wine, Beer, Spirits and Cider Summit, Governor Cuomo called for the modernization of the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Law, noting that the statute, enacted in 1934 following the repeal of Prohibition, is outdated, confusing, and difficult for businesses to navigate.

Governor Cuomo has a track record of ignoring public health and social costs due to alcohol, and instead boosting his buddies in the alcohol industry.

To my mind, this should have been an opportunity to tackle the alcohol burden in New York state.

  1. Alcohol use is the third leading behavioral cause of death in the United States.
  2. 18.000 New Yorkers die every year due to alcohol-related causes.
  3. As a contributor to injuries and chronic disease, alcohol is a factor in one in ten hospitalizations in New York City.
  4. One in five New Yorkers reports being harmed due to someone else’s alcohol use.
  5. Nearly one quarter (23%) of all youth reported consuming alcohol for the first time before the age of 13. Evidence shows, the earlier a person starts using alcohol, the more they consumer later on in life and the higher is the likelihood for them to develop an alcohol use disorder.
  6. Under-age alcohol use and binge alcohol use are a big problem in New York.
    1. More than four in ten (44%) current youth that consume alcohol are engaging in binge consumption.
  7. There are 40.000 licenses for selling alcohol in New York State, 20.000 in New York City alone.
  8. 58% of all licensed outlets sold alcohol to minors.

Governor Cuomo created this Working Group comprised of industry attorneys, craft manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers, a Community Board representative and other industry experts to review the law and make recommendations on how best to modernize it. The group held four public meetings and finally agreed to over a dozen recommendations to revise, consolidate and modernize the law, including:

  • Reorganizing the Alcoholic Beverage Control Law
    The Working Group recommends a complete reorganization of the laws in a coherent, customer focused manner in order to better serve those regulated businesses.

This actually means that the alcohol industry wants to remove regulatory procedures that are costly for them. “Customer focused” means that only a minimum of regulations is considered adequate, and regulations with regard to public health and safety are to be ignored.

  • Consolidating Licenses
    The Working Group finds the current structure causes confusion and recommends amending the law to reduce the number of licenses to three: one for beer; a second for wine and beer; and a third for establishments that serve beer, wine and liquor.

This actually means that the alcohol industry wants a process for faster and more licenses. But increasing alcohol outlet density will increase alcohol harm.

  • Modernizing New York’s Blue Laws
    The Alcoholic Beverage Control Law includes provisions strictly prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages at on-premises establishments (restaurants, bars, taverns) from 4 a.m. until 12 noon on Sunday. The Working Group recommends two options regarding sales on Sunday; (1) amending the statewide hours from 12 noon to 8 a.m., or (2) creating a permit to allow on-premises licenses to serve before noon on Sunday.

The alcohol industry wants to make alcohol more available in New York. With increased availability, there is increased alcohol use and alcohol harm.

The 40-page report contains the word “health” only twice. This is appalling. To discuss an improvement of any alcohol law and to not talk about health is as ignorant of alcohol’s burden on society as it can get.

I find one quote by Vincent Bradley, the Chairman of the State Liquor Authority from the report’s letter to governor Cuomo very cynical:

The group also included a Community Board representative to insure that the interests of the public were considered.”

18 group members promote the interests of the alcohol industry. One group member “takes care” of the interests of the public. That fact alone tells the story of what the report and the recommendations are about:

Less regulations, more profits – as far as the alcohol industry is concerned.

But that also means that the burden of alcohol harm in New York will increase, and with it expenditures on reducing and treating it. I wonder whether citizens (and taxpayers) are not concerned over the way governor Cuomo wastes taxpayer money in effectively subsidizing the alcohol industry. They get the profits for their harmful products. The public pays the tab.

This update of the alcohol law is two things:

  1. It is a real life example of what happens when the alcohol industry gets a free pass at writing its own alcohol law, supported by decision-makers that sit in the same boat with Big Alcohol.
  2. This ‘update’ really is a missed opportunity to take evidence-based measures for the promotion of public health and well-being, to better protect vulnerable groups and communities from alcohol harm and to create a healthier and happier city and state.