By Candace Winegrad
For Northwest Asian Weekly
With the Nov. 8 election coming up, the debates surrounding Initiative 1183 continue to rage on among many communities, organizations, and business owners in the Seattle area.
The measure, if passed, would privatize liquor sales in Washington state, making hard alcohol available for purchase in grocery and convenience stores more than 10,000 square feet in size. The possibility of rapid and widespread alcohol availability has caused many residents to question the initiative on the basis of public safety, as seen in the recent slew of TV attack ads by the No on I-1183 coalition.
Alex Fryer, a campaign spokesperson for No on I-1183, says that the shift from government control of liquor sales to privatization has already proved to have negative effects.
“In Vancouver (British Columbia), they went from a state system to a private system about nine years ago, and they are seeing a rise in consumption,” Fryer said. “With all of that consumption, you get the problems … teenage drinking, traffic accidents, and all of the health [issues] associated with problem drinking.”
OneAmerica Votes, an advocacy group for pro-immigrant government policies, joined the No on I-1183 alliance for similar reasons.
“What we’ve seen historically is that these [liquor] stores are placed in immigrant communities and communities of color,” explained Toby Guevin, program manager for OneAmerica Votes.
“Right now in Washington state, there aren’t as many liquor stores as a lot of other places … and it’s a lot more difficult for youth to get access to alcohol,” Guevin said. “If I-1183 passed, it would be something like one in four under-aged drinkers would have access to alcohol.”
While many voters share these concerns, others believe that privatization would offer more benefits than complications.
“I don’t think there would be many changes,” said Charles Kim, owner of Evergreen Spirit Distributors in Federal Way. “People will still drink responsibly, and as consumers, they would have more options [about] what they want to purchase, at the convenience of what hours or stores they want to go to.”
Kim believes that the main problem with the current liquor sales system is the government’s involvement.
“[The government] should stay out of the liquor business and not control what is being sold in Washington state. They should concentrate on other matters,” Kim said. “[Privatization] would bring more revenue into the city and state.”
Thaddeus Teo, a University of Washington (UW) student and president of the Chinese Student Association at the UW, thinks the people of this state would not abuse a privatized system.
“Washington state has a high [number] of socially conservative people [in certain areas], especially outside the city of Seattle,” Teo said.
“Having a privatized system gives consumers more options and more convenience. … Consumers would spend less time traveling, as they can simply get what they want at a grocery store while shopping,” Teo explained. “Economically, having more competition in the market essentially drives prices down, benefiting the consumers.”
Some business owners, however, don’t see it that way. Jeannie Lee, a representative from the Korean American Grocers Association of Washington, said that I-1183 and its “10,000 square feet or more” clause would only cause further economic stress for small business owners.
“Only the big stores can take advantage [of 1183]. If Costco monopolizes alcohol, and [it] is the only store that gets bigger and bigger. All the small mom-and-pop stores will die down,” said Lee.
“The government has to look at it [as] a broad spectrum of all sorts of businesses. The economy [has] slowed down and the people are struggling,” Lee added.
Costco, which recently became the second-largest single donor to an initiative in Washington state history, has put up $11 million thus far, causing some supporters of I-1183 to question such tactics.
If the initiative passes, Costco will likely corner the market by providing the cheapest and most readily available liquor. This could make it tough for its much smaller, local counterparts to compete.
“While people may want to see a change in the way Washington state regulates liquor, they don’t like companies like Costco pouring $11 million into a campaign to change our public policy,” said Fryer.
Guevin and Fryer see Costco’s strong support as a threat, but they believe that Washington voters will see beyond campaign tactics.
“I don’t think you can put anything past such a well-funded campaign as the Yes on I-1183 campaign,” said Guevin. He added, “Money is definitely a factor in terms of making [the initiative] viable.”
Fryer said, “[But] when voters sit down and look at [the measure] … they’ll ask themselves, ‘Will this make our community safer? Will this make our families healthier?’ and if the answer is no, they will reject it.” (end)
Candace Winegrad is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.
She can be reached at email@example.com.