In the Doghouse

CT's Automatic Liquor Machines Are a Kid's Best Drinking Buddy

The EtOHAL9000 automatic alcohol dispenserPut a quarter in, get drunk. What could possibly go wrong? On April 12th, the Connecticut State House of Representatives asked that question when they overwhelmingly approved a bill authorizing automated beer and wine dispensers. The devices, which operate off a prepaid card, strip away the face-to-face element of alcohol sales. This interaction provides an important firewall for firewater, both in terms of verifying the patron’s age and in applying bartender’s judgment as to whether the patron can responsibly handle another drink. The machine doesn’t care, as long as there’s money on the card.

Worse, this is a slap in the face to one of Connecticut’s lasting contributions to public health. In 1998, the town of Orange, CT, passed an ordnance banning cigarette vending machines in the town. Despite the modest scope of the bill—banning ALL cigarette machines in town meant banning THE cigarette machine in town—the ordnance was challenged in superior court and overturned. The state rallied behind the town, and then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal got the ban reinstated, clearing the way for local jurisdictions across CT and the U.S. to enact similar bans.

The two central arguments to rejecting the ban have easy parallels in justifications for today’s booze bots. First, lawyers for the vending machine distributor argued that remote locking would allow attendants to verify age. Second, the machines only reflected a small portion of total cigarette sales. But Connecticut State Department of Mental Health surveys at the time showed that 40% of underage smokers bought from the machines, and 6 out of every 10 attempts to use the machines were successful. There is no doubt the unmanned, unmonitored nature of the new automated booze machines make them highly attractive to underage drinkers. And by increasing the rate by which alcohol is distributed in a bar, they absolutely raise the pressure on the servers and bouncers, just begging for them to make a mistake.

These machines also represent a major loss of opportunity to build a new set of safeties in the alcohol market. Responsible Beverage Service (RBS) trainings bolster bartenders’ skills in judging when it becomes unsafe to serve a particular customer, as well as how to de-escalate tense situations and ensure the overall safety of the bar. By increasing the client-load without increasing the number of employees, these machines automatically undermine the ability of a skilled bartender to become a health advocate and look out for their safety and that of their patrons.

Of course, the Connecticut legislature and the makers of the Halcohol 9000 do not need to worry about it. They are far away from the alcohol service. The device encourages the same kind of distance between monitoring and access that put cigarettes in kids’ hands. Moreover, it spits on the triumphs of their predecessors.