Public Health Experts Advise Against Further Privatization of Alcohol Sales

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Back in April, a group of public health experts put out a statement with little fanfare recommending against the further privatization of alcohol sales.

This recommendation is based on evidence that privatization would increase excessive alcohol consumption and related health and social problems. It was released 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 debate over privatizing Pennsylvania’s wine and spirits shops may be taking a backseat to the state budget these days, but as the conversation returns to privatization in the fall, lawmakers and journalists should read the Task Force’s findings. It is the most definitive statement on retail alcohol privatization issued to date by U.S. public health researchers.

To help, the Keystone Research Center has put together a policy brief explaining how the Task Force makes recommendations and the basis for its findings on alcohol privatization.

In a nutshell, the recommendation is based on the best available evidence, drawn from research on “natural experiments” with actual privatizations. After reviewing 12 studies of a total of 21 privatization cases, the Task Force found enough evidence to conclude that privatization results in an increase in “per capita alcohol consumption, a well-established proxy for excessive consumption.”

In other words, the Task Force found consensus in the scientific and public health communities that privatization will increase alcohol consumption and is likely, therefore, to increase problems associated with excessive consumption.

In addition to reviewing studies of “natural experiments” with privatization, the Task Force also 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.

The debate over privatizing alcohol sales is far from over. As lawmakers continue to consider this concept, the findings and recommendation from the Task Force deserve careful consideration as the definitive statement of the public health and scholarly research communities.

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