Lifting of ad ban benefits consumers

It’s not the stuff of which bar room toasts are normally made, but we’d like to raise our glasses to the Supreme Court, which last week overturned a Rhode Island ban on liquor store ads that include prices for alcoholic beverages. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that the ban violates the right of free speech. While that is true, the ruling is also a victory for the cost-conscious consumer.
Anyone who enjoys an occasional drink or two knows liquor prices — thanks primarily to “sin taxes” — are on the rise. Many people will cheer the appearance of prices in liquor ads (and the ensuing price battles among retailers) as a long-awaited relief. Free speech advocates can celebrate the decision as well. Alcohol and tobacco, although legal in every state, carry with them a stigma. Potential health problems notwithstanding, alcohol and tobacco deserve the same consideration and free speech protection as other products.
Similar bans on liquor store ads are on the books in Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Minnesota. Stores in all affected states are sure to challenge the ban. Surdyk’s Liquor Store in Minneapolis was the first local store to do so, based on the court’s decision.
After placing ads in the Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press, owner Jim Surdyk said, “We’re pulling the trigger. I don’t know what the consequences will be.” As expected, state liquor control officials said Friday that they will cease enforcement of the current statutes. With the unreasonable ban out of the way, chances are good that business at Surdyk’s — and at stores that follow suit — will be booming.
Supporters of the ban worry that lifting the ban will benefit only large liquor stores or franchises that can afford the increases in advertising costs. It’s true that in some cases, price-based competition could force mom-and-pop operations out of business. But many neighborhood stores who emphasize convenience and customer service will survive. In the long run, and perhaps most importantly, consumers will be guaranteed the best prices available.
The last time we checked, anyone older than 21 could purchase and consume alcoholic beverages. Because of an outdated ban, however, comparison shopping was limited to perusing the aisles of stores near and far. If a store can offer consumers a better price than a competitor, they should have the opportunity to advertise appropriately. Grocery and department stores have been doing it for years. The court’s decision is long overdue.
Competition is the foundation of capitalist society; free market economics depends on it. Under the old system, businesses were forcibly prevented from using what often works best to attract customers: honest advertising. But the veil of secrecy has been lifted and consumers will surely benefit.