USA: Supreme Court Ruling Weakens State Alcohol Control
The U.S. supreme court has decided 7-2 to strike down a two-year residency requirement for anyone seeking an initial license to operate a liquor store in Tennessee. This ruling is further eroding the foundations for the three-tier alcohol control system in the United States and will make alcohol more available across the country, despite already rising alcohol harm.
When applying to open a liquor store in Tennessee the state required a two-year residency for initial applicants, and then applicants for renewal are required to reside in the state for 10 consecutive years.
The case was brought by Total Wine, a national chain of liquor superstores, against Tennessee’s residency requirement, backed by the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retail Association, along with 34 other states that have similar laws.
This ruling is against the 21st amendment which repealed the national prohibition of liquor sales, and left to the federal states the right to regulate those sales within their borders. The ruling was done according to the dormant Commerce Clause which is meant to restrict state protectionism and allow domestic free trade across states.
Who disagreed and why?
Justices Gorsuch and Thomas disagreed with the majority opinion.
In dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch noted that two separate constitutional amendments have been adopted to deal with alcohol in the United States but they both have one consistency.
States may impose residency requirements on those who seek to sell alcohol within their borders to ensure that retailers comply with local laws and norms,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch, as per npr.
He further stated that these laws have been in place for 80 years and he does not see duty and power by the Supreme Court to strike down laws like these as unconstitutional. The majority opinion states there is “little relationship to public health and safety” with the residency requirement.
However, as reason reports Justice Neil Gorsuch stated that the residency requirement can benefit the public by “raising prices, and thus reducing demand” for alcoholic beverages.
Paving the way for massive alcohol delivery
As goodbeerhunting reports, this ruling is a step to challenging the three-tier laws on alcohol. These laws control alcohol sale, consumption and ultimately seek to prevent and minimize alcohol harm to people, communities and society. These laws are what stands in the way of major alcohol delivery by companies such as Amazon, Walmart and Total Wine.
Already in 2005 state alcohol regulation had been challenged once. Then the surpreme court struck down state laws that allowed in-state wineries to ship directly to consumers out of state, but barred out-of-state wineries from shipping to consumers inside the state. This case was also won through the dormant Commerce Clause.
However that was only for wineries and not other alcohol producers. This time around, the decision is about retailers preventing states from discriminating between in- or out-of-state commercial enterprises. It opens up the future possibility of companies like Amazon using their massive delivery networks to sell alcohol.
Amazon has already started exploring this prospect. Earlier this year, they hired a lobbyist to directly “help lead state and local engagement and public policy activities” related to alcohol regulation.
Amazon is also already trying out its alcohol delivery in several states, and recently applied to sell and deliver alcohol in San Francisco.
Weakening of the three-tier system of alcohol distribution and state alcohol control laws is a big hit against public health. Weakening of laws coupled with alcohol delivery would drastically increase availability of alcohol in the United States.
The ruling has misplaced priorities of why states are given power to control alcohol. Alcohol is not an ordinary consumer good and causes almost 90.000 deaths annually in the United States, as well as a variety of diseases including cancer, heart and liver disease.
The ruling pushes forward greater alcohol commerce which leads to more availability and affordability, which increases consumption of alcohol. Increased consumption of alcohol, in turn, increases alcohol harm. This is why the World Health Organization (WHO) specifically identifies restricting availability and reducing affordability as evidence-based, cost-effective policy measures in preventing and controlling alcohol harm – the so-called alcohol policy best buys.
Alcohol control laws exist to safeguard the public interest, which should always be prioritized over commercial interests.