Neo-Prohibitionists: Hands off our hooch


We have written in the past about the byzantine-seeming regulatory patchwork of alcohol laws in this country. Every so often, folks seek to change this regulatory system in the name of freedom and consumer choice, and while progress of a sort has been made in this or that locale, there remains a very long way to go.

Even though Prohibition ended with the passage of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on Dec. 5, 1933, more than a dozen states today still maintain monopoly control over the sale and/or distribution of distilled spirits — and some still over beer and wine. Most states do not do so, and the idea that monopoly control of some aspect of booze is justifiably a core function of government is silly. Worse, however, is that they further limit product choice, increase costs and generally annoy us consumers.

Since Prohibition ended, just to give a little context, 32 states have opted to regulate liquor through the issuance of wholesale and retail licenses to private wholesalers and retailers, effectively creating a regulated, private liquor market — what is called the “three tier system” of producers, distributers, and retailers — each needing to turn a profit for their service in getting product to consumers. This system is cumbersome, but more or less efficient. The other 18 other states (and, of course, Montgomery County) have opted, instead, for government control of liquor wholesaling and/or retailing so as to “control” booze sales and distribution and, at least theoretically, to encourage temperance and responsible consumption.

As Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken once infamously put it, “The Prohibitionists, when they foisted their brummagem cure-all upon the country under cover of the war hysteria, gave out that their advocacy of it was based upon a Christian yearning to abate drunkenness, and so abolish crime, poverty and disease… . In plain words, what moves them is the psychological aberration called sadism. They lust to inflict inconvenience, discomfort, and, whenever possible, disgrace upon the persons they hate — which is to say, upon everyone who is free from their barbarous theological superstitions, and is having a better time in the world than they are. They cannot stop the use of alcohol, nor even appreciably diminish it, but they can badger and annoy everyone who seeks to use it decently, and they can fill the jails with men taken for purely artificial offenses, and they can get satisfaction thereby for the Puritan yearning to browbeat and injure, to torture and terrorize, to punish and humiliate all who show any sign of being happy. And all this they can do with a safe line of policemen and judges in front of them; always they can do it without personal risk.” Hyperbole aside, Mencken had a point — which remains sadly all too relevant.

Obviously we are not discussing the entirely appropriate and justifiable efforts to promote moderation — which is actually industry-led, or the appropriate governmental efforts to eliminate drunk driving and the consumption of alcohol by minors. And we fully support programs addressing alcohol abuse that are based upon a sound scientific foundation. Yet such concerns and efforts are very far afield from the neo-Prohibitionists of today that hector the industry and badger the consumer. Every time privatization efforts emerge in those states that persist in some form of liquor control, the neo-Prohibitionists crop up with new, fanciful objections. Now they are also aided and abetted in these efforts to retain control of hooch by nebulous and inexact data from the federally funded Center for Disease Control (CDC).

The CDC’s “Community Preventive Services Task Force” which is an “independent” group appointed by the CDC recently announced, for example, that the privatization of liquor sales would cause actual consumption to rise precipitously (44.4 percent), which would in turn lead to the usual litany of social problems related to drunkenness. The “evidence” they rely upon is not only suspicious, it has already been debunked by numerous public health authorities as well as the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Further, before it began to engage in questionably legal lobbying efforts on the public’s dime, the CDC had itself previously acknowledged the problems with the “evidence” it now uses. Following the task force’s initial review (back in 2006-07), they reached the conclusion that “there is insufficient evidence to determine the effects of privatization on excessive alcohol consumption and related harms.” Then again in 2011, after reviewing three studies on the privatization of alcohol sales, they found that two of those studies “yielded mixed, statistically non-significant results.” Since then, however, efforts towards the privatization of government liquor monopolies have been advanced in Washington, Georgia, Connecticut, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. So obviously, the neo-Prohibitionists had to do something!

Although the task force is made up of 15 “independent” public health experts that only meet three times a year, their work is supported by a staff of over 40 paid, full-time employees of the CDC. It seems fairly clear that the bulk of the work is being done by the CDC staffers — how else to account for the fact that this same task force has produced detailed policy recommendations on a myriad of topics from asthma to STDs to car accidents with only three review meetings a year? This would also, perhaps, account for the suddenly political nature of their findings in at least this instance.

OK, so we’ve gone far afield ourselves from our usual wine and spirits recommendations. The legitimacy of the CDC engaging in lobbying efforts — sorry, we mean “public education campaigns” — using taxpayer dollars to buttress the neo-Prohibitionists is probably better handled by more sober-subject-driven correspondents — but it sure works up our thirst.

So we heartily recommend quenching that thirst with one of those single malt Scotch whiskies so near perfection that all the world’s troubles melt away — and one that is nearly always to be found even in government liquor stores:

Lagavulin 16 Year Old Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky (43 percent abv; $90): This stunning whisky opens with massive smoky Islay peat, but with a dryness unlike any other Islay whisky. The aromatic complexity only deepens from there, with additional beautifully integrated notes of Lapsang Souchong and Earl Grey teas, iodine, brine, orange marmalade, toffee, figs, vanilla and sweet spices — and all with intermittent charcoal and smoked meat notes dancing in and out of focus. The flavors follow suit, but with added heft and an oily, almost velvety delivery. This powerful, hugely concentrated whisky demonstrates better than any other Islay malt that peat smoke doesn’t simply dominate and smother every other flavor but, rather, serves as an artist’s canvas upon which the usual distillation and maturation flavors can be brilliantly showcased and even elevated. This is a stunning whisky. L’Chaim!

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