Originally created 05/15/04

Minibottle repeal in peril



This looked like the year South Carolina finally was going to get rid of its ridiculous, outdated and dangerous minibottle law. That's the law that requires restaurants and bars to serve hard liquor out of the same miniature bottles used on commercial airlines.

The state's hospitality industry favors its repeal, as does the public. Indeed, except for a handful of spirited special interests - distillers, liquor stores and bottlers - everybody with any common sense wants the minibottle law gone.

South Carolina is the last state that has it. It hasn't been easy to scrap because it can't be done by simple legislation - it must be done by amending the state constitution, and that calls for a statewide referendum.

What is required of the General Assembly is to get the minibottle referendum on the ballot, hopefully the November one. That plan seemed to be on track until a few days ago, when it hit a procedural snag in the House Judiciary Committee. Now debate has been delayed - and that puts it in grave jeopardy, since time is running out on the legislative calendar.

What the House might do, if it doesn't let the referendum die, is to OK it at the last minute - too late to resolve any differences it might have with the Senate measure. That way, House members could have it both ways - cynically claiming they voted to put the minibottle referendum on the ballot even while they bowed to the special interests seeking to keep it off.

In an unusual alliance, the hospitality industry has joined substance-abuse activists such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving in urging repeal of the minibottle law. That's why repeal looked so promising for most of the session.

Distilled spirits poured from the 1.7-ounce bottles make for larger and more potent drinks than when they are poured freehand, as is done in Georgia and other states. It is believed the larger, stiffer drinks contribute to the Palmetto State's abnormally high rate of drunken driving deaths and accidents.

Restaurants and bars are opposed to minibottles because they are more expensive than freehand drinks, and that puts them at a pricing disadvantage.

Polls show South Carolinians would strike down the minibottle law if given a chance. As long as they are denied that chance at the ballot box, state lawmakers are sacrificing the public interest to satisfy a small body of special interests. Shame on them.