Public Health Experts Advise Against Further Privatization of Alcohol Sales
HARRISBURG, PA (June 2, 2011) — National public health experts are recommending against further privatization of retail alcohol sales based on evidence that privatization would increase excessive alcohol consumption and associated health and social problems, the Keystone Research Center reports in a new policy brief.
The recommendation was made in an April statement from the Task Force on Community Preventive Services, an independent, volunteer body of public health experts created in 1996 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“The Task Force statement is the most definitive statement on retail alcohol privatization issued to date by U.S. public health researchers,” said Stephen Herzenberg, PhD, Economist and Executive Director of the Keystone Research Center. “It is based on the best available evidence, drawn from research on ‘natural experiments’ with actual privatizations. The Task Force statement deserves close examination as Pennsylvania lawmakers consider a proposal to privatize state wine and spirits stores.”
In the Task Force statement, researchers explained that their recommendation against further privatization of alcohol sales in states with control of retail sales is “based on strong evidence that privatization results in increase per capita alcohol consumption, a well-established proxy for excessive consumption.”
The Keystone Research Center policy brief provides an overview of the Task Force and its findings on alcohol privatization.
The Task Force periodically conducts rigorous “systematic reviews” of peer-refereed studies on a variety of issues, including “excessive alcohol consumption,” and makes recommendations based on the evidence it gathers.
Twelve research papers that examined the impact of actual cases of privatization were used as the “primary evidence” by the Task Force in its evaluation. The papers evaluated the effects of 21 instances of privatization or (in one case) re-monopolization of retail alcohol distribution. They included retail alcohol privatizations in seven U.S. states, two Canadian provinces, and two European countries (Finland and Sweden).
Sixteen of the 21 privatization events studied examined the effects of privatization on per capita consumption of alcoholic beverages that were not privatized as well as those that were privatized. After privatization, the Task Force found, consumption of privatized beverages increased “substantially” (the median increase was 48.2%). Meanwhile, consumption of non-privatized beverages increased very little (the median change was a fall of 2%).
The Task Force inferred based on “extensive evidence” that “when privatization results in substantial increases in alcohol consumption, there are at the same time substantial increases in excessive consumption.”
While the 12 research papers examining natural experiments with privatization did not focus heavily on health effects and other alcohol-related harms, the Task Force found 16 other high-quality studies that examined the impact of private retail distribution on health and other social problems across different jurisdictions (some with private retail distribution and some without). The preponderance of this “secondary evidence” showed an increase in health and other social problems from private alcohol distribution.
"Based on the best available evidence," said Karen Glanz, a Pennsylvania member of the Task Force, and the George A. Weiss University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Schools of Medicine and Nursing, "we concluded that the maintenance of government control of off-premise sale of alcoholic beverages is an effective strategy to prevent or reduce excessive consumption which is one of the leading causes of preventable death and disability."
Dr. Herzenberg noted that writings by Dr. Antony Davies published by the Commonwealth Foundation and George Mason University’s Mercatus Center present a different view on alcohol privatization. That work, however, has not been published in any peer-referred scholarly journals and failed to meet the quality standards necessary for inclusion as primary or secondary evidence in the Task Force Report.
The Task Force on Community Preventive Services is an independent, nonfederal organization that is partly staffed by “The Community Guide,” an organization that provides guidance on public health issues. Members of the Task Force are appointed by the Director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) but conduct work independent of the CDC.
The Keystone Research Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that promotes a more prosperous and equitable Pennsylvania economy. Learn more: www.keystoneresearch.org.