The beauty of turning 21 meant I could finally purchase alcohol whenever I pleased, a fact I was more than thrilled about. But in traveling to other states, I quickly found that not all alcohol laws are created equal.
One night in January, my boyfriend and I walked into a grocery store in Washington, D.C.’s Virginia suburbs. We were visiting friends in the area, and we decided to pick up some wine for everyone to share. The store was fully stocked: Wine selection ranged from the red water my boyfriend calls “two-buck chuck” to a classy selection of champagnes. Within 20 minutes, we had two bottles of wine and had spent less than $5 a piece.
Too bad you’ll find nothing of the sort in a Giant Eagle. Pennsylvania does wine quite differently. And we should really fix that.
The liquor laws of the Keystone State — especially compared to more lax states — are outdated, waste time and do little to deter irresponsible behavior such as binge drinking or DUIs.
Pennsylvania’s alcohol laws are some of the strictest in the nation, and that’s the result of two key policies. First, Pennsylvania is one of 17 alcoholic-beverage-control states — meaning the state controls the sale of some or all kinds of alcohol. All wine and hard liquors in the state have to be bought from a state-owned store, and Pennsylvania also prohibits the sale of any alcohol from being sold outside an approved distributor.
The tangible results of these laws are that buying alcohol in the Keystone State is much less convenient than elsewhere. To put this in perspective, let’s say you’re hosting a Fourth of July party, and you need to get snacks, beer and wine for everyone. In a state like Virginia, I could get all of these in one trip to my local grocery store. In Pittsburgh, on the other hand, I’d have to stop at Rite Aid for snacks, then walk to the Fine Wine and Good Spirits store on Atwood for wine, then lug all that to Mellinger’s on Semple for some six-packs.
All this trouble would be understandable if these laws made us safer, but that isn’t the case. Rather than have a state monopoly selling alcohol, our neighbors in New Jersey and New York let private companies run liquor sales. Proponents argue privatization will allow consumers more choice by allowing more locations to sell alcohol. Rather than see more drunk drivers, N.J. and N.Y. actually have as much as 39 percent fewer drunk driving deaths per capita than Pennsylvania.
And this isn’t that surprising. Americans love to drink, so even if they have to spend an extra 20 minutes going out of their way to get it, they will. So why have these inconvenient laws if they don’t make us safer?
As it turns out, Pennsylvania’s alcohol laws are inconvenient by design. The laws as they stand today date back to 1933, around the time the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition, when alcohol was illegal nationwide. Then-Pennsylvania Gov. Gifford Pinchot was pro-Prohibition but recognized he was fighting a losing battle.
Four days before alcohol was legalized again, Pinchot and the state General Assembly created the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which still runs the Keystone State’s wine and spirit stores to this day. Pinchot settled on this system as he believed it would discourage drinking by making alcohol too expensive and inconvenient to acquire.
If the goal of Pennsylvania’s alcohol laws was to discourage drinking, it hasn’t done that either. A study by the National Institute of Health show that Pennsylvanians, per capita, drink more than 2.3 gallons of alcohol a year, more than the residents of 21 other states. Prices haven’t been a deterrent either, as Pennsylvania’s liquor prices are on par with our neighboring states.
Fortunately, legal steps have been taken to loosen the grip of the state alcohol monopoly. Gov. Tom Wolf signed HB 1690 last year, a bill that would allow grocery stores approved to sell beer to also sell wine. But legal complications, like an estimated 13,000 new license applications, have slowed implementation of these changes.
Full privatization of Pennsylvania’s liquor industry is not likely. All attempts to privatize have been opposed by various unions, politicians on both sides, liquor store employees and groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. But the passage of HB 1690 is a step toward a looser, more convenient alcohol policy such as that in Virginia, which allows beer and wine to be sold in grocery stores, while maintaining a state monopoly on spirits.
At least Pennsylvania’s leaders have acknowledged the problems in our archaic liquor laws and are working to change them — law by law.
And that’s something worth toasting to.
Nick primarily writes on politics and American culture for The Pitt News.