Special Reports

State stores can play a role

The state store on North Atherton Street in Patton Township is open Sundays.  CDT/Michelle Bixby
The state store on North Atherton Street in Patton Township is open Sundays. CDT/Michelle Bixby CDT/Michelle Bixby

In the op-ed "LCB working to protect communities" published March 8 in this series, Patrick J. Stapleton, Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board chairman, writes about the closing of three downtown State College bars operated by Sammark Inc. and outlines the measures available to communities seeking to close a nuisance bar.

Besides asking the courts to padlock a bar determined by local authorities to be dangerous, or a community voting to go “dry,” the chairman explains the best way to minimize the side effects of a nuisance bar is for the community to cooperate with local police and the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement — meaning the burden of responsibility is yours.

State College has the lowest median age in the state — 22. There is one state store for every 9,500 residents in this university town, compared with the average of one state store for every 20,000 residents elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

State College is a community where families choose to raise their children and senior citizens choose to grow old; with drinkers urinating in streets and front yards and vomiting on doorsteps. In the past few years, the rise of underage drinking, blood-alcohol content levels and emergency room visits at Mount Nittany Medical Center have been reported and community leaders have voiced concern.

Among them is Penn State President Graham Spanier, who wrote in the Centre Daily Times on Nov. 6: “Disappointingly, the harder we have fought against dangerous drinking in Centre County, the steeper local alcohol-sales figures have climbed, along with emergency room visits. One measure of the problem — state store business — has climbed from less than $10 million in 1999 to more than $23 million last year in the four State College stores.”

Historically, the mission of the PLCB monopoly was to control the sale of alcohol. Its purpose once was to be a strong adjunct to a healthy alcohol policy that would help reduce alcohol-related harms. That has all changed. History has been rewritten.

Since 2003 alone, the PLCB has praised the opening of state stores on Sundays (including the state store on North Atherton Street); triumphed years of increases in alcohol sales; implemented a widespread alcohol advertising campaign including newspaper inserts, radio, magazine and billboard advertisements; and granted restaurant licenses to convenience/ grocery store cafes (including the State College Wegmans).

It also has allowed for limited carry-out beer sales; initiated an e-mail sign-up campaign to inform participants of upcoming sales and promotions; and unveiled plans to place wine vending machines inside neighborhood supermarkets when not even cigarettes are permitted to be dispensed through vending machines in Pennsylvania.

When the PLCB continues to promote a carnival-like alcohol atmosphere for drinkers older than 21, you cannot expect those younger than 21 not to be affected too.

As reported in the Centre Daily Times, sales in the four State College state stores the week approaching State Patty’s Day totaled 39,541 bottles, or $564,880 — about $35,000 less than sales during the week preceding the Penn State-Ohio State home football game.

The PLCB has offered, year in and year out, alcohol education grants worth thousands of dollars to assist local authorities in the reduction/ elimination of underage and dangerous drinking.

In February 2007, the PLCB gave Penn State $250,000 to study underage drinking and possible prevention strategies. The PLCB has made significant monetary grants to address alcohol-related problems in State College. These grants must allow residents the opportunity to engage in an environmental strategy that could reduce alcohol-related harms for young people and the community.

In January, the Centre Daily Times began publishing this weekly forum titled Focus on Excessive Drinking, which seeks community-based solutions to excessive drinking. In response, we suggest local leaders and the community seek the following actions from the Liquor Control Board for the remainder of 2010 on a trial basis:

Close all state stores in State College at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays;

Close the state store on Atherton Street on Sundays;

Close all the State College stores at 6 p.m. on all Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays on Penn State home football weekends.

During this trial period, you could assess statistics of alcohol-related crime on campus, in the community and on weekends, and check the number of alcohol-related admissions to the emergency room and the BAC levels of those admissions.

Compare the above indices of alcohol- related harms from the trial period to similar months in 2008 and 2009 and determine if this environmental strategy bears any definable positive results.

While the LCB chairman concludes his column by saying the community is now free of a nuisance bar, he overlooks the role that the PLCB’s state store operations can add to community protection in reducing alcohol- related harms.

The rationale for the state-controlled system is that residents are not merely shareholders interested in profit but have the right to use the state store system to reduce alcohol-related harms in their communities.

Michael Dusak is president and W. David Wanamaker is vice president of the Independent State Store Union, which is a Harrisburg-based bargaining unit representing the state store managers across Pennsylvania.