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Published: Fri, 24 Nov 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Fri, 24 Nov 2017 08:35:26 -0500


Tax Reform Would Make Getting Trashed Cheaper

Tue, 21 Nov 2017 14:35:00 -0500


In the Britschgi household, Thanksgiving means a big family meal with copious libations. If Senate Republicans have their way, the libations will be much cheaper.

Amidst its more controversial changes, the Senate's tax reform bill includes a provision slashing taxes and streamlining regulations for the nation's brewers, vintners, and distillers.

"That would have a huge impact on our business," says Julie Verratti, co-founder of Denizens Brewing Company, a craft brewer in Silver Springs, Maryland. "Any type of alleviation is huge for us."

Currently, the feds put a $7 tax on the first 60,000 barrels a brewery produces. This would be rolled back to $3.50. The bill would also cut the tax rate for a brewer's first six million barrels of beer from $18 to $16.

Lowering the federal excise tax on those first 60,000 barrels would save brewers an estimated $37.5 million per year, according to the Brewers Association.

For small breweries like Denizens—which produces roughly 1,700 barrels a year—that would be substantial and welcome tax relief.

Verratti estimates that halving the federal excise tax would save her business about $6,000 a year, no insignificant sum for a small business. "That's buying kegs, that's buying tanks, that's paying our employees higher wages," she tells Reason.

Distilleries also have stiff tax cuts coming their way.

Right now, makers of the strong stuff pay a federal excise tax of $13.50 on every gallon of distilled spirits. The Senate bill would cut this to $2.70 per gallon for the first 100,000 gallons, and then $13.34 for every subsequent gallon up to 22.1 million gallons.

Winemakers would see some of the rates they pay pruned back as well. Low-alcohol sparkling wines and meads would see their taxes cut by nearly 70 percent, from $3.30 down to $1.07.

The bill also includes some welcome regulatory changes, such as simplified bookkeeping requirement and easier tax-free transportation of booze between breweries and distilleries, a change that would make collaboration on new brews and batches easier.

These changes were initially submitted by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) as a stand-alone alcohol reform bill back in January. Proving that nothing brings people together like a stiff drink, their Craft Modernization and Tax Reform Act had attracted 46 co-sponsors by the summer recess. A companion bill in the House chalked up 252 co-sponsors by the same time.

The bill was rolled into the Senate's tax reform legislation earlier this month.

An ideal federal tax code would be one of broad bases and low rates. That would preclude a bizarre web of differing beverage tax rates depending on type, alcohol content, and, in the case of wine, level of carbonization. These do not go away under the Senate tax bill. But as long as libertarian dreams of a flat tax, fair tax, or even no taxes are a far-off fantasy, cheaper booze sounds like a pretty good stopgap measure.

Public Health Nannies Want to Stop You From Boozing. Why? Because Cancer

Thu, 09 Nov 2017 15:45:00 -0500

The great thing about modern epidemiology is that you can find multiple studies to justify just about any public health policy you happen to favor. If you have a bias, there is plenty of confirming evidence from which to cherry pick. Now come the doyens of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) with their statement on alcohol and cancer. ASCO cites research estimating "3.5 percent of all cancer deaths are attributable to drinking alcohol" in the United States. That would mean some 21,000 of the 596,000 Americans who died of cancer in 2016 were killed by cancers associated with alcohol consumption. In comparison, smoking tobacco is estimated to cause 32 percent of all cancer deaths (about 120,000 deaths). Drinking booze is specifically associated with oropharyngeal and larynx cancer, esophageal cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, breast cancer, and colon cancer. The group treats consuming alcohol as a pure public health problem to which the only solutions are various forms of prohibition. They recommend regulating alcohol outlet density; increasing alcohol taxes and prices; maintaining limits on days and hours of sale; enhancing enforcement of laws prohibiting sales to minors; restricting youth exposure to advertising of alcoholic beverages; and resisting further privatization of retail alcohol sales in communities with current government control. ASCO tells only part of the story about the health effects of drinking beer, wine, and spirits. There appear to be plenty of studies that find hard drinking increases an individual's risk of cancer. But the devil is in the cherry picking. Lots of research finds light to moderate drinking involves a trade-off between a slightly higher risk of cancer and significantly lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Of course, the folks at ASCO are aware of this issue. In an attempt to deal with it, the ASCO statement cites a line of research that argues that "the benefit of alcohol consumption on cardiovascular health likely has been overstated." For example, one 2005 study referenced by ASCO warned that due to confounding effects, "nonrandomized studies about the health effects of moderate drinking should be interpreted with caution." As far as I can tell, the ASCO statement itself cites meta-analyses of mostly nonrandomized studies in support of its claims that drinking alcohol causes cancer. Gander, meet sauce. Claims for the cardiovascular benefits of moderate alcohol consumption remain somewhat controversial. That being said, a huge new meta-analysis in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC) probing the relationship of alcohol consumption to all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer-related mortality in U.S. adults finds significant health benefits from light to moderate drinking. To some extent there is a trade-off between reduced cardiovascular risks and higher cancer risks. The JACC researchers subdivided drinkers into six groups: lifetime abstainers, lifetime infrequent drinkers, former drinkers, and light drinkers (fewer than 3 drinks per week), moderate drinkers (more than 3 and less than 14 drinks per week for men and less than 7 for women), or heavy drinkers (more than 14 per week for men and more than7 for women). Binge drinking was defined as five or more drinks on one or more days per week. ASCO asserted that "even modest use of alcohol may increase cancer risk." However, Medscape reports of the JACC study that "light and moderate alcohol intake predicted reduced all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortalities in both men and women." That's right, light to moderate drinkers not only had lower risks of dying from any cause or from cardiovascular diseases, but also lower risks of dying from cancer. On the other hand, the JACC researchers found "the highest levels of alcohol intake were associated with increased all-cause and cancer mortality in men but not women." Interestingly, even heavy drinkers had a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases than did abstainers, infrequent, and former drinkers. There are other tra[...]

The Whiskey Making Was Hard, But the Government Was Easy

Thu, 09 Nov 2017 09:57:00 -0500

George Washington's rebuilt distillery at Mount Vernon recently celebrated its 10th anniversary with a team of master distillers from around the country producing a commemorative rye whiskey using the old-fashioned methods of Washington's time. When Mount Vernon farm manager James Anderson pitched the idea of opening a whiskey distillery to Washington in 1797, it was hardly a novel idea. Many early Americans distilled alcohol and whiskey surpassed rum as the young nation's spirit of choice after the Revolutionary War. Despite a somewhat saturated market, Washington quickly distinguished himself in the whiskey business—his distillery would become one of the largest in the country, producing 11,000 gallons during its peak years. Washington's success should not obscure the fact that making whiskey at the turn of the 18th century was hard. Everything about the whiskey-making process—from milling the grain, to stirring the mash, to firing the stills—was an order of magnitude more difficult than today's mechanized and streamlined process. What stood out about this process was the intense amount of manual labor it took to run Washington's distillery. Nearly a dozen members of the Mount Vernon Historic Trades team were on hand on anniversary day to re-enact firing the pot stills, loading the mash pits with grain, and monitoring the temperature of the fermenter. One historical re-enactor spent all day chopping firewood with an ax. Another demonstrated how mash barrels were made by hand in that era. After a long day of work, the distillers and re-enactors produced the equivalent of 40 liquid gallons of 50 percent alcohol rye whiskey. Even mid-sized whiskey distilleries today can produce more than 2,000 gallons a day or more than 1 million gallons a year. An expert cooper during Washington's time would have been able to produce a single barrel in a day. Brown-Forman cooperage in Louisville, Kentucky, currently pumps out 2,500 a day. Entrepreneur that he was, Washington would be awed by the technological advancements in distilling capitalism has created—advances that, ultimately, have resulted in the wonderfully consistent and smooth whiskeys we enjoy today. His awe would surely turn to disgust if someone tried to explain to Washington the modern-day nightmare that is the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Commission. For all of the hard work to produce liquor in his time, dealing with the government was easy. Washington was never forced to sell his alcohol exclusively through government-run liquor stores. Or send all the revenue from his sales at Mount Vernon to ABC headquarters, and receive a paltry 46 percent in return. Or pay the nation's third-highest liquor tax. Washington's customers would have been just as frustrated. ABC allows visitors at distilleries to sample no more than three ounces of spirits (served in half-ounce pours), even though they can drink as many IPAs as they want at the local brewery. Virginians often pay significantly more for a bottle of booze than consumers in neighboring states, with the state's high mark-ups and liquor taxes. Virginia's liquor laws are among the worst in the country, but almost every state in the Union has its share of outdated and backward booze laws. These laws survive largely from the post-Prohibition era, when states rushed to fill the federal void. States adopted something called the three-tier system, mandating the separation of producers, wholesalers and retailers of alcohol, something not required of the vast majority American industries. Within this artificial structure, producers of alcohol are forced to sign away their sales rights to third-party distributors, rather than being able to freely sell their spirits directly to consumers. The three-tiered system also produces a patchwork of irrational and competition-inhibiting laws at the retail level, like Indiana prohibiting gas stations and convenience stores from selling cold beer. To be fair, were he alive today, Washington might have supported some distilling regulati[...]

Pennsylvania Wants to Get Drunk on Debt

Thu, 12 Oct 2017 10:15:00 -0400

A decade ago, state lawmakers in Pennsylvania faced a budget deficit and political pressure to privatize the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which was then run as a quasi-independent state agency. Selling the nation's oldest toll highway to a private operator would have netted billions for the state, but lawmakers and then-Gov. Ed Rendell thought they had a better idea. They sold bonds backed by future toll revenues—a process known in investment lingo as "securitizing"—and turned the Pennsylvania Turnpike into an off-the-books source of borrowing that would, in theory, provide a steady stream of revenue for 50 years. It didn't work out that way. Turnpike tolls climbed every year to meet the new debt obligations since Act 44 passed in 2007. A drive from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh today costs more than double what it did a decade ago. After state audits showed future toll increases would be unsustainable, lawmakers in 2013 had the turnpike subsumed into the state Department of Transportation. Even with that minor fix, Act 44 has become a case study—see this report from the University of Pennsylvania published last year—in what not to do when states take on debt. Lawmakers in Pennsylvania, however, are preparing to make nearly the same mistake. Facing a $1.2 billion budget deficit and political pressure to privatize Pennsylvania's state-run liquor system, Gov. Tom Wolf wants to securitize future liquor sales to eliminate the debt. Borrowing, Wolf said last week, would "pay off nearly all of our prior year deficit and significantly reduce the need for additional temporary borrowing to pay our bills." The analogy with the turnpike isn't a perfect one. Motorists have options other than toll roads when they want to drive across the state. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is a monopoly on liquor store operators and wine and spirits wholesalers that kicked in $210 million to state coffers last year. But like the Turnpike deal, borrowing risks long-term problems if the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board can't meet its debt obligations. And issuing bonds would also further entrench state-run liquor stores, an outdated system most states abandoned long ago. The state faces a budget crisis because lawmakers in June delivered a $32 billion spending plan to the governor but have failed to pass a bill specifying how the budget will be funded. Wolf is asking for new taxes on gas drillers and hotels to close the budget gap. "There are definitely questions," House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin told WITF's Katie Meyer this week. "The main concern is, is it legal, and can he unilaterally do it?" The better question is whether or not he should. Wolf's borrowing plan correctly points out the amount the Liquor Control Board contributes to the budget each year is less than what would be required to make annual payments on the $1.2 billion in borrowing. Wolf's top budget adviser told PennLive's Charlie Thompson that the annual debt service would amount to about $85 million. True, but shortsighted. Funds siphoned off to pay for new debt service will not be available for future state budgets. And a new paper published Thursday by Jarrett Dieterle, a fellow at the R Street Institute in Washington, D.C., questions whether state-run liquor operations charging what amounts to secret taxes in the form of price mark-ups on alcohol are illegal. The PLCB used to apply a 30 percent mark-up on the wholesale price of liquor, but recently switched to a variable markup that fluctuates from product to product. Either way, that added fee is "a tax in everything but name," says Dieterle. The mark-up system lacks accountability, because taxpayers can't remove PLCB board members at the ballot box. A lawsuit built on Dieterle's premise could undermine the state's ability to continue collecting this unseen tax. "This setup ultimately allows state officials to hide the bill from taxpayers and to rely on what amounts to backdoor taxes to plug budget gaps, all while avoiding politically con[...]

Puerto Rico Responds to Disaster Stupidly by Banning Alcohol Sales

Sat, 30 Sep 2017 07:49:00 -0400

Puerto Rico is suffering on a massive scale in the wake of Hurricane Maria earlier this month. Eighty percent of the nation's food crops were destroyed by the storm. Losses on the island total in the tens of billions of dollars. Aid has reached the country, but not yet those in need. Some 10,000 shipping containers filled with food, water, and other supplies are sitting at the country's main port due to a combination of damaged roads, fuel shortages, and the absence of many truck drivers. There has been some good news amidst the bad. Many companies have donated to hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico. And the Trump administration temporarily waived the Jones Act, a dumb 1920 law that restricts which boats may ship to the island. I love Puerto Rico. My girlfriend and I spent a couple weeks in the country to celebrate our 20th anniversary in 2013. We began and ended our journey in San Juan, visiting cities and towns all around the island in between by car. Our trip was almost perfect. Except for the plodding, mean motorcycle gang that went to great lengths to make sure I couldn't pass them on the highway, the people were uniformly great. Except for being bitten by a random fish, the beaches and water were wonderful. And except for the mofongo—I typically love plantains, but I don't get mofongo one bit—the food was amazing. I ate what might be the world's best roast pork at a little roadside joint outside of Luquillo. What I may remember most about Puerto Rico is that there are so many great bars across the island to sit down and chat with the locals. My favorite bar on the island, without a doubt, was La Taberna Lúpulo in Old San Juan, a friendly, breezy, 50-tap space in an old colonial building that bills itself as Puerto Rico's premier craft beer bar (though they also have a great selection of rum). I've followed La Taberna Lúpulo on Facebook since. I noted their preparations for Hurricane Irma, and was happy to see—save for a power outage and a downed tree or two outside—that they'd made it through that hurricane relatively unscathed. Like the rest of Puerto Rico, though, La Taberna Lúpulo is struggling to get by after the island was slammed by Hurricane Maria. The bar has no water or electricity. But that's just the half of it. The bar also has had no way to make money, thanks to a curfew and to a bizarre decision by Ricardo Rosselló, Puerto Rico's governor, to prohibit most alcohol sales on the island. Indefinitely. "We tried to open in a limited capacity but between the curfew, the dry law and the inability to get fuel, we found it hard to staff the bar and impossible to justify being open as anything other than a meeting spot for folks who had nothing to do but wander the streets looking to share stories," they posted on Facebook this week. "In short, we were hemorrhaging money." Penalties for violating the alcohol ban were steep: six months loss of license to sell alcohol. Several bars on the island were punished for ignoring the ban. "No establishment can sell alcohol during the emergency," the public affairs ministry declared. Well, not quite. The alcohol ban isn't absolute. Hotels—including those a short stroll from La Taberna Lúpulo in Old San Juan—can still serve alcohol without restrictions. "Somehow they are allowed to serve beer while we, less than a block away in some places, are not," Lúpulo lamented in the bar's most recent Facebook post. "Doesn't seem fair, but it's the law. We hope it doesn't lead to our insolvency, but short time will tell." That's rubbish. The curfew may or may not be necessary. But a discriminatory alcohol sales ban has no legitimate justification. After a disaster, people need spaces like La Taberna Lúpulo to help them get back on their feet. We've seen the vital role that bars and restaurants have played in places like post-Katrina New Orleans and post-9/11 New York City. As I discussed in a 2012 law-review article, bars in particular have a long and [...]

Brickbat: Religious War

Tue, 05 Sep 2017 04:00:00 -0400

(image) The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission has fined St. John the Baptist Catholic Church some $600 for violating state alcohol laws. Some of the volunteer servers at a church fundraiser apparently imbibed some of the alcohol they were serving while "on duty."

Filming an Absinthe Haze

Fri, 25 Aug 2017 11:23:00 -0400

I'm tempted to call this an anti-drinking scare film of the pre–World War I era, except I'm not sure it was actually meant as a scare film:

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That's Le songe d'un garçon de café, a.k.a. The Hasher's Delirium, a 1910 short by the pioneer animator Emile Cohl. The waiter's hallucinations are the sorts of things you might see in a modern anti-drug movie. But given Cohl's background—he had been involved with the Incoherent movement, a 19th century precursor to surrealism—and given how inventively weird his other animations are, my suspicion is that his film didn't have any moral agenda at all; he wanted to draw some strange things, and he thought an absinthe haze would be as good a narrative excuse for that as any.

But that's just an educated guess. Either way, it's a nice piece of filmmaking, and I say that as someone who does not want to dissuade you from drinking at all.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

The Government’s War on Cocktails [Podcast]

Wed, 23 Aug 2017 11:42:00 -0400

"What we lost with Prohibition wasn't just a couple of drinks," says Reason's Peter Suderman, "we lost an art and a culinary tradition that is really this kind of great, uniquely American thing."

In our latest podcast, Suderman joins Nick Gillespie to talk about his feature story in the latest issue of our print magazine, "Government Almost Killed the Cocktail." They discuss why cocktails started out as morning eye-openers, Prohibition-era drinking loopholes, methods for disguising the flavor of low-quality bathtub gin, and how the ghost of Prohibition still affects drinking culture today.

Subscribe to Reason for early online access to articles and archives dating back to 1968. For just $19.95 a year, you'll get 11 print issues and digital access!

Audio produced by Ian Keyser.

Subscribe, rate, and review the Reason Podcast at iTunes. Listen at SoundCloud below:

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Voters Could Have a Chance to Repeal North Dakota's Insane Blue Laws

Wed, 02 Aug 2017 10:50:00 -0400

There are a dozen states that don't allow alcohol to be sold on Sunday. In 17 states, it's illegal to buy a car on Sunday. Those are probably the best-known examples of so-called "Blue Laws," a legacy of the puritanical spirit and prohibitionist instincts that still color lawmaking in America today. They don't make much sense once you try to apply a little logic, but they are usually not much more than minor inconveniences. Not so in North Dakota, where state lawmakers have taken blue laws to incomparable lengths. It is illegal there, for example, to buy clothing or shoes before noon on Sundays. It's also illegal to buy pots or pans, silverware, and any other sort of kitchenware. It's illegal to buy curtains, draperies, blinds, and window shades. It's illegal to buy beds, mattresses, linens, sheets, and blankets. It's illegal to buy furniture, appliances, and luggage. It's illegal to buy mirrors, lawnmowers, lamps, and air conditioners. It's technically legal on Sunday mornings to buy clothing for infants or for "transient travelers under emergency conditions," just like it's technically legal to buy hardware for "emergency plumbing, heating, cooling, or electrical repair," but good luck finding a store that's open before noon to sell it to you. Since almost anything that you'd buy in big box store, a mid-sized home goods store, or a small town hardware store is off-limits, most of them are closed until noon. And if you want to count the minutes until they open, I hope you bought a clock or watch on Saturday. Buying any sort of timepiece is illegal too. "North Dakota's current prohibition on Sunday morning shopping is arcane, unfair, and unenforceable," says Branden Medenwald, chairman of North Dakota Open on Sundays, a nonprofit working to end this state-enforced nonsense. Medenwald is pushing to have a repeal of the state's blue laws on the ballot in 2018. His organization is in the process of collecting the 20,000 signatures necessary to make that happen. "North Dakota doesn't dictate to farmers when to farm, hospitals when to practice medicine, or restaurants when to feed people. We are simply asking that all businesses, not just a chosen few, be allowed that same freedom," he wrote this week in an op-ed published at the Say Anything Blog, a website covering North Dakota politics. Earlier this year, state lawmakers considered a bill that would have repealed all the state's blue laws except the all-day ban on car sales and the all-morning ban on alcohol sales. It failed to pass, but not before one state senator used the opportunity to condemn "selfish consumerism" while another argued it was unnecessary to repeal the blue laws because North Dakotans should "use that time to go to worship." Aside from dealing a blow to the creepy notion that state lawmakers can tell people how to use their time, getting rid of the blue laws might have an actual, tangible benefit. Groups in favor of repeal—like the Greater North Dakota Association, the state's chamber of commerce—say getting rid of the bans would create jobs and benefit low-income workers. North Dakota's blue laws also have become a vehicle for crony capitalism. Since 1967, the state has allowed some businesses to open early on Sundays, though it wasn't until 1991 that general retailers were allowed to open on Sunday afternoons. (Previously they were required to be closed all day.) There are now 39 exemptions written into the state law, covering everything from pharmacies to newsstands, and from restaurants to theaters. By constantly expanding the exemptions, lawmakers have only added to the insanity. For example, a 2015 amendment allowed for the sale of alcohol to begin at 11 a.m. on Sundays, specifically so bars could cater to football fans and brunch-goers. That means it's illegal to purchase a pair of shoes or a set of kitchen utensils on Sunday m[...]

Neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt on Alcohol, LSD, and Getting Sacked for His Findings

Tue, 01 Aug 2017 12:00:00 -0400

The British psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt had reached arguably the pinnacle of his field as chairman of the government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Then in 2009 he was summarily dismissed from his position. In May, Reason TV's Zach Weissmueller sat down with Nutt to discuss his sacking, and what he's learned from the psychedelic research he continues to do at Imperial College London. Q: What happened that caused you to lose your job? A: We did an enormous amount of research into the comparative harms of drugs, and I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that alcohol was actually the most harmful drug in the U.K. I started explaining to the government, "Our drug laws are wrong. Putting people in prison for cannabis possession is not fair, because alcohol is more dangerous." They did not want to hear that. Q: You just completed some research on LSD in conjunction with the Beckley Foundation. Tell me about that. A: It's a fascinating drug. In the 1950s and '60s it was going to solve the world's problems. The National Institute of Health in America funded 140 separate studies. Then as soon as it started being used recreationally, it suddenly got banned. We decided it was time to bite the bullet and do the first brain imaging study of LSD. Q: You were quite literally looking at, "This is your brain on drugs." What is our brain on this particular drug? A: Our brains are trained over decades to do things exactly the same way every day, every hour, every minute, every second. Those structures we thought were hardwired, but it turns out they're not hardwired. They can be disrupted by LSD. We think that explains why afterwards, people often feel different, and better, because the brain's been allowed to work in a slightly different way for the first time. Q: What is the application of that? A: It helps us make sense of why drugs like LSD can change the way people behave in the long term. The founder of [Alcoholics Anonymous], Bill Wilson, became a profound enthusiast for LSD. It works. People are much less likely to relapse back to drinking after they've had a psychedelic experience, because they can see there's a world out there which isn't all about the bottle. Q: Do your brain scans offer any clue as to why psychedelics seem to offer some relief to those with conditions like depression and PTSD? A: Psychiatric disorders exist because people cannot disengage. Depressed people keep thinking negative thoughts: "I made a mistake. I was a bad person." People with PTSD can't disengage from the memory and over time, those circuits in the brain become completely self-determining. They just go on and on and on, even if the person wants to stop them. I think the disruption of circuits, the breaking down of these regimented silos of function of the brain by psychedelics, can help people escape from those underlying disorders. Q: Some critics might think, "Why study psychedelics? We have pharmaceuticals that are designed to treat these disorders." A: The truth is, half of all people who are treated with antidepressants don't respond to the first dose. There are people who never respond. Disorders like alcoholism—response rates are like 10 percent, not 80 percent. So there's a huge unmet need. Q: Are there any policy changes that would enable us to proceed even more quickly? A: Oh yes: We've got to change the regulations. These drugs are all stuck in what's called Schedule I under the U.N. Conventions. We've got to get them in a schedule that allows scientists to work with them without being treated as if they're criminals. Q: How would you envision these types of drugs being integrated into health care? A: These drugs are not drugs you take every day to hold at bay your depression or your anxiety. These are drugs you use with a psychotherapist to change the wa[...]

Shake Your Head at Italy's Crappy New Food Laws

Sat, 22 Jul 2017 08:00:00 -0400

Italy is home to some of the best and most memorable meals I've ever eaten. I first visited in 1994, after graduating from college, and have returned on several occasions. Some of my fondest memories are of sampling wonderful street food in Milan, drinking and dining al fresco amid the lights at night in Rome, and enjoying the amazing aromas of wonderful cooking foods that practically permeate the country. That's why I'm disheartened to learn that Italy is increasingly cracking down on its food culture—including, specifically, the aforementioned Milanese street food, drinking and dining outdoors in Rome, and the grand aromas of the country's food. Earlier this month, Milan banned food trucks from the city. Also in July, reports The Local, Rome imposed a series of bans on food and alcohol. The Roman law prohibits grocers and other stores from selling alcohol after 10 p.m. and bars people from drinking alcohol from a glass in public at that same time. It also prohibits all alcohol consumption outdoors after midnight, and cuts off all alcohol sales after 2 a.m. Rome has also joined other Italian cities—notably Florence—in prohibiting picnicking at popular historic sites. The first Saturday the alcohol ban was in place, Roman police issued more than three dozen tickets, which cost about $200 a pop. Many Romans are aghast. "It limits our freedom as a business, and our free choice as responsible adults to be able to drink after 2 a.m.," the owners of Redrum, a restaurant and bar, told The Local. "[It is] a curfew which recalls decidedly sad periods of our history." At least one U.S. publication doesn't see the big deal. Food & Wine—a magazine devoted to celebrating some of the specific things Rome has banned: food and wine—apparently doesn't see the big deal with the Roman law. "Truthfully, it doesn't sound like the law should be difficult to abide," writes F&W's Elisabeth Sherman. "You'll still be able to enjoy Rome with respect, and a glass of wine in your hand, at least until two in the morning. By then, you should be in bed anyway." This isn't all Italy's getting wrong. This month, the country's highest court ruled that restaurants that serve frozen food to customers without declaring so on their menus are guilty of civil fraud. A restaurateur who'd disputed the charges was fined more than $2,000. "Even the mere availability of frozen food, if not identified as such on the menu, constitutes attempted commercial fraud," said the ruling. (Canned tomatoes are apparently still acceptable.) In April, the same court ruled, the New York Post reports, that "cooking stinky food—like rich pasta sauces and fish—too close to neighbors" constitutes a crime. The court, in upholding a couple's fine of more than $2,000, declared cooking food that produces aromas which are subjectively "beyond the limits of tolerability" amounts to "olfactory molestation." A creeping food xenophobia also appears to be taking hold in the country. Last year, Florence imposed restrictions on so-called "foreign" food from being sold in the historic city center. Fair Verona barred "ethnic" foods. This year, Venice banned new fast food outlets, focusing in part on kebab shops, in order to preserve Italian "decorum and traditions." Add to these recent crackdowns the country's ban on cultivating GMO crops and the creeping takeover of the food sector by the mafia, and Italy's future as a culinary titan would seem to be in jeopardy. It was only last summer that I wrote here about a new food law Italy had gotten right. In that case, Italy took action to combat food waste by rolling back complex government recordkeeping requirements and rules barring food from being shared. But one good law can't stand up to heaps of awful ones, which seems to be about all that's cooking in Italy these[...]

Alabama Bans Margarita Pitchers, Declaring Them Adulterated

Wed, 12 Jul 2017 19:35:00 -0400

The Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (ABC) recently informed Will Haver, founder and CEO of the Taco Mama restaurant chain, that he was breaking the law by serving his customers pitchers of margaritas. That edict, which was accompanied by the threat of a fine up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail per pitcher, was based on a counterintuitive interpretation of a law that has been on the books for decades: It shall be unlawful...for any person to fortify, adulterate, contaminate, or in any manner change the character or purity of alcoholic beverages from that as originally marketed by the manufacturer, except that a retail licensee on order from a customer may mix a chaser or other ingredients necessary to prepare a cocktail or mixed drink for on-premises consumption. According to ABC General Counsel Bob Hill, mixing a single cocktail does not qualify as adulteration, but putting several in a pitcher does. The problem, as ABC spokesman Dean Argo explains it in an interview with R Street Institute Vice President Cameron Smith, is that the alcohol in a pitcher of mixed drinks tends to settle to the bottom. "The person who is poured the first or second drink may receive only a .25 to .5 ounce of alcohol," Argo tells Smith, "where a person receiving the third, fourth or even fifth pour may receive much more alcohol than mix." I'm no chemist, but that explanation seems dubious to me. If the ingredients in a margarita separated, wouldn't the alcohol migrate toward the top, since it is less dense than water or lime juice? Perhaps what Argo means is that the first and second servings of a frozen margarita tend to contain more ice, which would reduce the alcohol content. But if the margaritas are served on the rocks (the way most of them seem to be served at Taco Mama, where "frozen" is one of a dozen varieties), melting ice would tend to make later servings weaker. In any case, the ABC's reading of the law is outlandish, especially in light of the explicit statutory exception for mixed drinks. If six margaritas in separate glasses are not adulterated, pouring them into one vessel cannot make them so. The ban on adulteration is aimed at protecting consumers from being cheated or endangered by trickery behind the bar, not from getting exactly what they want, which for many Taco Mama customers is a pitcher of margaritas. Pressing Argo on the ABC's logic, Smith asks whether it would be legal for a bar to sell a pitcher of margarita mix alongside six shots of tequila. "I can't [see] anything that would prohibit that," Argo says. "The patron would [be] able to tell exactly the amount of alcohol he or she is getting and the server/bartender would be able to know when the patron becomes overserved." Smith is puzzled: "So the real danger is the alcohol settling in the pitcher, but that's only a problem if a bartender mixes it? If the patron does the exact same thing on the other side of the bar, then it's completely reasonable....You truly have to be overserved to buy that kind of nonsense." Trying to impress upon Smith the hazards of tolerating margaritas in pitchers, Argo trots out a parade of horribles. "If one licensee is allowed to serve mixed drinks in a pitcher," he says, "then other licensees would have to be allowed to serve mixed drinks." That could include not only margaritas, Argo warns, but even rum and Coke. Who would want to live in such a world?[...]

Brickbat: Poison Whiskey

Thu, 06 Jul 2017 04:00:00 -0400

(image) The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission charged Spec's Wines, Spirits and Finer Foods with a host of violations and asked that a Texas administrative court either fine the company $713 million or yank the license for each of its 164 stores. But the judges said the only charge that the commission proved was that Spec's might have paid an invoice a day or two late. The court issued Spec's only a warning. But the investigation cost Spec's more than $1 million in legal fees and other costs, and the three-year freeze the commission imposed on issuing Spec's new licenses until the case was resolved kept it from expanding.

Connecticut's Liquor Pricing Scheme Is a Bad Law That Just Won't Die

Tue, 27 Jun 2017 12:45:00 -0400

Shoppers in Connecticut pay the price of paternalism every time they frequent a local liquor store. Prices are 24 percent higher than in neighboring states or up to $8 more a bottle, thanks to a law that has its roots in prohibition. Unlike some other states that prevent liquor retailers from selling below a product's cost, Connecticut instead allows wholesalers and manufacturers to post a minimum per bottle and per case price. Once prices are posted to the Department of Consumer Protections, prices can be amended to match a competitior's before a price is finalized for the next month. Retailers then add their shipping and delivery costs to the per-bottle price and cannot sell below this cost. Wholesalers must sell at the same price to all retailers. Despite efforts from liquor giant Total Wine and Company and the free-market Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy, the pricing cartel continues. Most recently, Total Wine's antitrust lawsuit, which accuses the state of price-fixing, was dismissed by a federal judge earlier this month. Chief United States District Judge for the District of Connecticut Janet C. Hall decided that the complex state regulations do not violate federal antitrust laws. The archaic pricing system has made business rather cozy for the state's small liquor stores, which never have to worry about competitor's prices. For Total Wine, a chain with 138 stores in 18 states, this law prevents it from offering lower prices due to its comparative advantage. As summarized in their legal filing: "Under this anti-competitive regime, a retailer like Total Wine & More cannot use its market and business efficiencies to reduce the prices offered to consumers." Total Wine has previously been called a "gorilla" and accused of being "diabolical" and "predatory" for trying to save consumers money. The state's 1,150 small package stores have consistently lobbied against changing the pricing scheme. Total Wine attracted attention to their suit with full page newspaper ads, promising to sell liquor below the state minimum. Another company, BevMax, joined in on the protest and lawsuit. Total Wine paid $37,500 in fines as a result. The stores also posted signs requesting customers call their legislators when the state required prices be raised. Company spokesman Ed Cooper called it an act of "civil disobedience." The state legislature responded with two bills to increase penalties for violating minimum bottle price or false advertising. The legislature has been notoriously defensive of the minimum pricing scheme and repeatedly blocked Gov. Malloy from tossing the law out. Here's more on Gov. Malloy's efforts by Reason's Jacob Sullum. This is now the fifth year in a row in which the governor has proposed overturning the pricing scheme and adopting a system similar to other states in which products can be sold for the price paid. Most likely, the legislature will again strike down his proposal. According to Malloy, in any other industry, an anti-competitive law would be tossed out immediately: "If we had a law that forced stores to sell bread for a price that was determined by state government, people would be screaming about capitalism and big government. But for some reason, we allow this anti-free market mandate to continue for this one particular industry." Proponents of the law, such as Lawrence Cafero a former House minority leader and executive director and general counsel of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Connecticut, said in testimony that "this change in our decades old law will be devastating to most local family owned Connecticut package stores." Malloy has stated that doing away with the regulation would increase state tax revenue by $5 million due to increased li[...]

Are Terrible State Alcohol Laws on the Way Out?

Sat, 24 Jun 2017 08:00:00 -0400

Alcohol regulations in this country could improve dramatically if more state courts would reject bald economic protectionism as a valid basis for lawmaking. That's the conclusion of a new study published last week by the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington, D.C. The new study, Could Economic Liberty Litigation 'Free the Booze'?, uses the hook of a recent South Carolina court case to suggest—hopefully—that we may be seeing the dawn of a new period of much-needed state alcohol deregulation. The lawsuit in question concerned section 61-6-140 of South Carolina's Alcohol Beverage Control Act, which stated that "[n]o more than three retail dealer licenses may be issued to one licensee[.]" The case involved national alcohol beverage superstore Total Wine, which owns three locations in South Carolina but was rebuffed by the state in its efforts to open a fourth. Total Wine sued to overturn the South Carolina law. The state, the court found, "offer[ed] economic protectionism as the sole justification of this extreme business regulation." The court determined the state's "only justification for these provisions is that they support small businesses." Thankfully, the court was unwilling to accept that justification. "The record does not contain any evidence of the alleged safety concerns incumbent in regulating liquor sales in this way," the court ruled. "Without any other supportable police power justification present, economic protectionism for a certain class of retailers is not a constitutionally sound basis for regulating liquor sales." The court rightly concluded that "'it's just liquor'... is not a legitimate basis for regulation." While it may seem trite for a court to conclude this, the truth is that in the seven-dozen years since the end of alcohol Prohibition in this country, courts have held time and again that the mere fact a law regulates liquor has indeed been a sufficient basis for that regulation. But that view began to change after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 2005 case that Michigan, New York, and other states cannot discriminate against out-of-state alcohol sellers. (Alas, I discussed "a new Michigan law that bars out-of-state retailers from shipping wine into the state" earlier this year.) More recently, in 2014, a federal court overturned Florida's inane ban on 64-ounce beer growlers. The message: federal courts have acknowledged that "it's just liquor" may no longer be a sufficient constitutional basis for lawmaking. But state courts have been mostly loath to overturn alcohol laws within their borders, choosing instead to defer to state lawmakers for whom cronyism and protectionism are legitimate bases for lawmaking. "From Virginia's food-beverage ratio law, which arbitrarily mandates how much booze versus food a restaurant can sell, to Indiana's cold beer law, which only allows liquor stores (but not gas stations or grocery stores) to sell refrigerated beer, the examples are legion," the R Street report notes. That's why the South Carolina decision is such a big deal. "Nearly every state in the country has oppressive alcohol laws that could be ripe for judicial review, and using a litigation-based model allows reformers to circumvent cronyist state legislatures that are often bent on protecting the status quo," said study author Jarrett Dieterle, a fellow at the R Street Institute and editor of, in an email to me last week. "If this model of targeting irrational alcohol regulations through economic liberty litigation takes hold in other states, it could upend the booze world as we know it," Dieterle tells me. "The examples of protectionist alcohol laws across the country are legion an[...]