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Why Are Liquor Stores Considered Essential Businesses?

This designation may provide a peek into the American psyche.

With an increasing number of states issuing “stay at home” or “shelter in place” directives, businesses regarded as essential remain open. The lists of “essential businesses” have some variation across states and with the federal government, but there are large swaths of overlap.

Essential businesses or workers include those concerned with healthcare, telecommunications, information technology, defense, food and agriculture, transportation, energy, water and waste water, law enforcement, and public works. All of these types of work contribute to the common good. In every state with a “stay at home” directive, liquor stores are considered essential businesses. That’s quite interesting.

The most obvious explanation may be that liquor falls under the category of food and agriculture. This category includes groceries, pharmacies, convenience stores, and other retailers that sell human food, animal or pet food, and beverage products. Restaurants with carryout or delivery service fall into this category as well. Liquor stores obviously sell beverages, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. They often also sell snack foods. Many states allow convenience stores to sell alcohol. Mystery solved.

There is more to the story, I suspect, than membership in the food and agriculture category. We might push the question further back to ask why alcoholic beverage products are included. The amount of money that excise alcohol taxes bring federal, state, and local governments is significant. The United States government levies taxes on alcohol in three categories of spirits (hard liquor), beer, and wine.

The unit of measurement is the gallon with the exception of beer, which is the barrel (31 gallons) The federal tax on a gallon of spirits is $13.50 and wine $1.07-3.40 depending on alcohol content. Beer is $18.00 per barrel. The federal government collects roughly $1 billion from alcohol taxes each month. States add their own taxes on top of the federal taxes. States’ taxes on alcohol vary tremendously; Washington state has the highest rate at $32.52 per gallon of spirits while Missouri has one of the lowest at $2.00 per gallon. Quite simply, there’s big money in alcohol sales.

I suspect the most relevant reason liquor stores are included as “essential businesses” is the long shadow Prohibition still casts. While the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was a federal decision, more than 30 states had enacted their own Prohibition by the time the Amendment went into effect in 1920. Prohibition ended in 1933 and is regarded by many as a catastrophic mistake that caused more deaths and harms than if the government had taken no action. Prohibition caused far too many toxic home and other bootleg brews to be sold or traded in an extensive black market.

One of the underlying issues was whether people had a right to consume alcoholic beverages. We still grapple with this in the United States, most notably when we ask about the legal drinking age. While for many years states could specify the legal age for drinking, this changed in 1984 when the federal government threatened highway funding if states didn’t move to raise the legal age to 21. For many, this felt like an infringement by the federal government into states' rights and by extension, personal rights. Every state and every person relies upon federal money for highways, which explains why any discussion about changing the age fails to get traction.

For those who are 21 and older, the operating assumption seems to be there is a right to drink alcoholic beverages. It is a form of freedom involving personal choice that the government has no business infringing. There may be laws that punish alcohol consumption when it poses a risk to others (drunk driving and purchasing alcohol for minors, for example).

The focus on drunk driving and purchasing for minors laws is the actual or potential harm to others. Whatever harm a person might do himself should be well beyond the arm of the law, according to this line of thinking. The government ought not to regulate alcohol choices, nor sugary drinks, nor food choices, nor any kind of activities that, while they may cause some self-harm, do not harm others. Banning alcohol sales by shuttering liquor stores would be an infringement on personal freedom, according to many people. But so, too, is shuttering hair salons. What makes liquor essential?

Liquor is essential because many people believe it is essential to them. This is a peek into the American psyche. Simply put, the United States is a country steeped in alcohol; our culture is saturated. Not only do we have a right to drink, we tell ourselves in all sorts of ways we deserve to drink. We work hard, so we deserve a drink. We’ve had a bad day, so we deserve a drink to take the edge off. We’ve finally turned 21, so we deserve to drink. Times are tough or times are totally great, we deserve to drink. We’re scared, we deserve to drink. Rites of passages (birth, graduation, marriage, anniversaries, birthdays, retirement) are all occasions deserving of alcoholic beverages. We drink alcohol to amplify feelings or to regulate them. Liquor comes to feel essential because we live in a culture that treats it as such. We treat it as such.

There’s no doubt there would be a massive uprising if liquor stores were ordered to close. It is a reasonable assumption. States know this and they do not want this sort of insurrection in the context of a pandemic.

Alcoholics struggling with addiction know liquor is essential because it will stave off the unwanted and severe effects of withdrawal. However, people with alcohol use disorder don’t account for the majority of people who have been rushing the liquor stores and buying in vast quantities. In uncertain times, we tend to want to find comfort in what we can, especially what is familiar. The expression “comfort food” says it all. Liquor is a comfort beverage. For most people, this isn’t a problem. For others, it may start to become a problem. It may be worthwhile to do a mini-assessment of one's reasons for purchasing and consuming alcohol.

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