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Tuesday, March 4, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Limit Alcohol Sales

Bureaucrats have a name for the men and women weaving along Seattle's downtown sidewalks on their way to buy another 40-ounce bottle of cheap beer: chronic public inebriates (CPIs). If it's enough of a problem to require an acronym, you know legislation can't be far behind.

In this case, the proposed laws are House Bill 1578 and Senate Bill 5791, and they make a great deal of sense. Tomorrow is the deadline for lawmakers in Olympia to follow the lead of sponsor Rep. Helen Sommers and do the right thing: Send one of the measures out of committee and get it on the floor for debate.

Either bill would limit sales of cheap fortified wine and beer within a "liquor restriction zone." Regulation of store hours, size of containers and other conditions of sale would be used to shut off the supply to chronic public drinkers.

The power to set zone boundaries and other details would be in the hands of the city or the state's Liquor Control Board, depending on the bill worked out by lawmakers. In either event, the bill would serve as a wake-up call to the Liquor Control Board, which should actively participate in efforts to limit liquor licenses for stores that thrive on the business of street alcoholics. (One small store in Pioneer Square was recently moving 800 gallons of beer in 40-ounce containers each month. The figure came to light when the City Attorney's office challenged the renewal of the store's liquor license.)

Once a law is passed, King County Executive Ron Sims wants to move ahead with a comprehensive plan to treat, house and educate CPIs.

This approach makes sense. It's sound public-health policy and good business: Limit the source of an illness that ruins lives, hurts neighborhoods and sucks up millions in taxpayer dollars for endless cycles of emergency-room care for indigents.

Opposition to the first step - a law creating liquor restriction zones - comes from large brewing companies, notably Anheuser-Busch, and regional beer distributors. Some retailers and some members of the Liquor Control Board also oppose the idea of local government having the right to set up the zones. They argue that the zone approach will only shift problem drinkers from one part of town to another.

They're wrong. Limiting the availability of cheap beer and wine, and providing appropriate treatment is a cost-efficient and humanitarian solution. One can only hope that Gov. Locke's two upcoming appointments to the Liquor Control Board will be members who support such forward-thinking approaches.

Brewery lobbyists are paid to argue that 40-ounce bottles of cheap beer serve an important consumer need and are legitimate products. Our policymakers are not.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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