A Modest Proposal


The state of Pennsylvania is testing the sale of wine by vending machine. Normally, alcohol may only be sold in stores owned and run by the state, but the Liquor Control Board has installed two wine kiosks in Giant Food stores for a trial run. The consumer first swipes a photo ID, then looks into a camera to verify that he or she is the same person. Then, the would-be wine drinker blows into a breathalyzer to determine their blood alcohol level. If they are over 21 and sober, they are then allowed to purchase wine from the high-tech machine. If the experiment works (and it seems to be going well thus far), the state will install 100 similar kiosks in various locations.

In nearby New York, the Department of Health is sponsoring a pilot project to control the sale of junk food. In a handful of convenience stores, the sale of Twinkies is monitored by automated kiosk. After taking a seat in front of the machine, customers insert their left arm into a special tube that takes a small blood sample. The sample is analyzed to determine the level of cholesterol and trans fats in the person’s system. During the final step, the machine pinches the person’s arm and runs a quick body fat percentage assessment. If everything checks out, the customer receives his or her Twinkies and leaves happily, munching away. Officials see this as a companion measure to the ban on trans fats recently instituted in New York City restaurants.

What’s the difference between these two scenarios?

The first one is true, while the second obviously is not. They are approximately equal in their level of absurdity, and both are frightening. Among other things, remember that the Pennsylvania kiosk is a machine, and probably just as unreliable as the vending machines that are constantly eating my money and giving me nothing in return. Even the Liquor Control Board admits that you’re unlikely to pass the breathalyzer if you’ve been gargling with Listerine.

Yes, intoxicated individuals should not be allowed to buy more alcohol and go out on the road with it. We all agree with this. It is a threat to public health, but very different from some poor slob eating fried chicken at a truck stop. The common thread between these two situations is control, or the ability of some people to tell others what to do.

It’s also curious that the breathalyzer is only required when attempting to purchase alcohol by machine. Unless you’re grossly and obviously intoxicated (or unable to hide it), you can presumably purchase booze at a state-run store and drive away with it. Imagine the effect on business if the clerks at the Liquor Control board stores subjected their customers to the test.

First they came and forced me to take a breathlyzer, and I said nothing because I wasn’t drunk. Then they came for my Twinkies, and I said nothing because I did not like Twinkies. What’s next?

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