In the Doghouse

In the Doghouse

CT's Automatic Liquor Machines Are a Kid's Best Drinking Buddy

The EtOHAL9000 automatic alcohol dispenserPut a quarter in, get drunk. What could possibly go wrong? On April 12th, the Connecticut State House of Representatives asked that question when they overwhelmingly approved a bill authorizing automated beer and wine dispensers. The devices, which operate off a prepaid card, strip away the face-to-face element of alcohol sales. This interaction provides an important firewall for firewater, both in terms of verifying the patron’s age and in applying bartender’s judgment as to whether the patron can responsibly handle another drink. The machine doesn’t care, as long as there’s money on the card.

Worse, this is a slap in the face to one of Connecticut’s lasting contributions to public health. In 1998, the town of Orange, CT, passed an ordnance banning cigarette vending machines in the town. Despite the modest scope of the bill—banning ALL cigarette machines in town meant banning THE cigarette machine in town—the ordnance was challenged in superior court and overturned. The state rallied behind the town, and then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal got the ban reinstated, clearing the way for local jurisdictions across CT and the U.S. to enact similar bans.

The two central arguments to rejecting the ban have easy parallels in justifications for today’s booze bots. First, lawyers for the vending machine distributor argued that remote locking would allow attendants to verify age. Second, the machines only reflected a small portion of total cigarette sales. But Connecticut State Department of Mental Health surveys at the time showed that 40% of underage smokers bought from the machines, and 6 out of every 10 attempts to use the machines were successful. There is no doubt the unmanned, unmonitored nature of the new automated booze machines make them highly attractive to underage drinkers. And by increasing the rate by which alcohol is distributed in a bar, they absolutely raise the pressure on the servers and bouncers, just begging for them to make a mistake.

These machines also represent a major loss of opportunity to build a new set of safeties in the alcohol market. Responsible Beverage Service (RBS) trainings bolster bartenders’ skills in judging when it becomes unsafe to serve a particular customer, as well as how to de-escalate tense situations and ensure the overall safety of the bar. By increasing the client-load without increasing the number of employees, these machines automatically undermine the ability of a skilled bartender to become a health advocate and look out for their safety and that of their patrons.

Of course, the Connecticut legislature and the makers of the Halcohol 9000 do not need to worry about it. They are far away from the alcohol service. The device encourages the same kind of distance between monitoring and access that put cigarettes in kids’ hands. Moreover, it spits on the triumphs of their predecessors.

SB 384 Supporters Build Their Case on the Backs of the Dead

 BREAKING: SB 384 has cleared the Senate GO Committee. READ MORE about the Senate's decision to choose nightlife over all life. 

Senator Wiener and the Los Angeles Times use Ghost Ship tragedy to argue for bill, ignorant of California’s own artistic history

A memorial for the victims of the Oakland Ghost Ship fireThe Los Angeles Times sure knows how to make a point: on the backs of the dead. In its coverage of SB 384—the dangerous bill allowing bars to stay open until 4 a.m.—the paper claims the Ghost Ship fire could’ve been prevented had there been a 4 a.m. last call. The 2016 fire, named after the unlicensed living/performance space in which it broke out, killed 36 and was one of the single deadliest building fires in California history. The Times would have you believe it would never had happened if only the kids were drinking at 3 a.m. in some well-financed, well-inspected club. This assertion ignores economics, the cultural history of California, and the role underground venues play in the music scene. More importantly, it cynically exploits the deaths of 36 young Californians to argue for a giveaway to the entertainment lobby that could cost more lives still.

SB 384 is an on-the-face dangerous bill—it leads to longer public drinking times, more concentrated populations of intoxicated people, and more fatigued and intoxicated driving, along with more subtle vectors for harm—that supporters justify through the short-sighted idea that localities should set their own last-call times. They push past the likely increase in drunk driving, violence, and disruptions to residents with unproven claims of economic benefit (tax revenues would likely be offset if not negated by increased costs to civic services, and largely paid to the state, not the local jurisdiction) and a deeply troubling, disingenuous claim that it would improve public safety.

The Times’s argument hinges on the idea—ascribed to Scott Wiener, the senator that sponsored SB 384—that more nightclubs making more money would allow for more nightclubs total. If there were more nightclubs, Wiener suggests, then promoters would “avoid ad hoc venues like Ghost Ship.”

This claim doesn’t stand up to even the briefest scrutiny. The Ghost Ship fire was not a result of a late-night party. It happened at 11:20 p.m., when every other bar and club in the Bay Area was still open—meaning its attendees were drawn there not by its late hours but by something else. That “something else” comes from unlicensed venues’ ability to book performances that are inherently unprofitable. Even a basic familiarity with economic principles suggests that, unless Wiener and friends intend to flood California with so many new late-night venues that the market is saturated and rents plunge, so long as there are more “mainstream” acts to play large clubs, that’s who will be booked, and the people drawn to more esoteric performers will continue to be forced to seek them at the margins.

All-ages club 924 Gilman Street urges patrons to drink somewhere elseThat’s not a new dynamic caused by the rent crisis. The “fashion, music, art” that one DJ tells the Times will be fostered by late last call has always flourished in California. Think about the Beats in San Francisco in the ‘50s, or the Funk Art movement based around Davis and the North Bay in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Those artists changed the face of the culture without needing to tie anything to lucrative entertainment promotions. NPR notes that Los Angeles in the '60s had as strong an art scene as New York—the same New York whose 4 a.m. last call so-called leaders like Wiener argue makes it more appealing than California. Think about the LA sound of hip-hop in the ‘80s through mid ‘90s; spawned as it was through out-of-the-trunk albums sales, those artists thrived despite, not because, of support from mainstream clubs. The Bay Area rock scene in the ‘90s and ‘00s revolved around the explicitly dry, all-ages Gilman St. Project in Berkeley. To claim that California is culturally impoverished because of liquor laws requires either ignorance, amnesia, or an outright contempt for what California has created.

Or perhaps all three. Make no mistake, hucksters like Wiener and the Times aren’t citing precedents or deep familiarity with the Ghost Ship attendees. They are making up stories to justify handing the keys to public health over to massive nightlife operators and Big Alcohol. Judging by the soulless eagerness to build their case on the fresh wounds of real tragedy, they do so without compassion, perspective, veracity, or shame.

TAKE ACTION to oppose this cynical and dangerous bill.

Heineken Receives Small Punishment for Big Violation

A broken Heineken bottleLast week, Heineken was forced to pay the piper in a blatant violation of the three-tier system that governs California alcohol sales. Lucky for them, the piper didn’t ask for much.

According to California Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC), the brewer was running a Facebook- and Twitter-based marketing scheme wherein consumers registering with Heineken were given coupons redeemable for a free beer at specific establishments. The problems were many and evident. Facebook and other social media outlets are extremely popular with younger users. Despite the potential to draw an underage audience, “age gates” (e.g. prompts to enter a date of birth) are difficult to implement on social media sites, and even if a clickthrough to the company website were required, they are comically easy to circumvent. Although the retailers were obligated to verify age when redeeming the coupons, that put them in the unenviable position of trying to take away the free beers Heineken already handed out.

As opportunistic and harmful as this sort of unfettered access to the youth market seems, ABC’s concerns were more fundamental. By running the promotion alongside specific, named retailers, Heineken violated the three-tier system which maintains that distributors serve as the gateway between brewers and retail outlets. This system prevents manipulation of markets, protecting consumers and promoting competition. Protecting its integrity is essential to regulatory organizations, and ABC acted decisively on its principles.

Of course, the decisive act amounted to a $30,000 fine. Since A-B InBev and SABMiller merged this summer, Heineken has become the second largest brewer in the world. They spent well over $150 million in marketing last year, with at least 25% of that being dedicated to digital campaigns. Proportionally, if they had spent $20 on their marketing, they would’ve been fined a about a cent and a half. (By comparison, Greece recently fined Athenian Brewery—Heineken’s subsidiary in that country—the equivalent of $33 million for unfair business practices.)

The three-tier system has been around since the repeal of Prohibition, so Heineken must have known they were stepping out of line. Fortunately, ABC was there to throw the book at them. Too bad they were only allowed to toss a paperback.