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Alabama and pornographic wine labels

 Yet another reason why we need to change the way alcohol is regulated in the United States:

An art poster from 1895 has been deemed pornographic by the Alabama Beverage Control Board, forcing distributors to remove a wine bearing its image from stores across the state.

The poster in question is the label for Cycles Gladiator, the line of $10 and $12 wine from California’s Hahn Family Wines. The Alabama distributor, MBC United, had to pull the wine from store shelves. The Alabama liquor authority, citing a consumer complaint, said the label had not been properly approved – even though it had been for sale in the state for three years. A Hahn spokesman said the label had been approved.

Why this is about more than prurient interest after the jump (and I promise – no Alabama jokes):

The problem with this is not so much that the Alabama’s liquor cops banned the label. The problem is that the liquor cops in 49 other states didn’t. How can you have any sort of effective national distribution system if there are potentially 50 sets of rules?

This speaks to the inherent difficulties with the three-tier distribution system, the 2005 Supreme Court decision that allowed some direct shipping from winery to consumer to bypass the three-tier system, and what’s going to happen to the three-tier system as several cases wend their way through the system to the Supreme Court.

Why is it constitutional for one state to regulate wine sales in a completely different manner from another state? Why is wine (as well as beer and spirits) different from tennis shoes and ketchup? Heinz doesn’t need to get its label approved 50 times, and no one parses Nike’s advertising. Also important: Why is this label OK if it’s sold as a poster in Alabama, but not OK as a wine label?

The states (and their allies, the distributors) have always argued that there is a public interest in regulating alcohol sales that doesn’t exist with tennis shoes or ketchup. Drinking alcohol is dangerous, so the state has to get involved. The difficulty with this argument in the 21st century is that it’s 19th century reasoning, part of the temperance movement that led to Prohibition. In addition,state-by-state regulation seems to conflict with the commerce clause of the Constitution, which gives the federal government the right to regulate commerce between the states.

The commerce clause argument, in fact, was endorsed by the Supreme Court in 2005, and that looks to be the way the three-tier system will end, if and when it does. Actions like this one in Alabama only make the states’ position that much more indefensible.

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