By Daryl Gale
In these days of manic health consciousness, candy and snack vending machines are considered inherently evil. Vending machines dispensing soda and other sugary drinks are even worse. Given that climate, you might think a wine vending machine would be rejected on its face.
Of course, this is Pennsylvania, and you’d be wrong.
Even more puzzling is the fact that a wine vending machine, owned and maintained by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB), would be prominently placed on a large college campus – as if college students need more access to intoxicants than they have already.
By the end of the month, just such a wine dispensing machine will be placed at the Fresh Grocer supermarket at 40th & Walnut, smack in the middle of the University of Pennsylvania – and lots of people are unhappy about it.
“Have you ever heard of anything so hypocritical?” fumes Michael Dusak, vice president of the Independent State Store Union, the Harrisburg-based organization representing state-run liquor store managers. “At the same time the PLCB is issuing a permit for the wine vending machine at Fresh Grocer’s, they’re spending $1 million on a campaign to combat underage drinking.”
PLCB officials counter that the machines will contain built-in safeguards against underage or inebriated customers. First, the potential customer must swipe his or her driver’s license into the machine’s reader. After scanning the license, the machine will take a video of the customer’s face so that some PLCB employee, presumably watching videos from every machine from the comfort of their desk, can confirm that the driver’s license photo matches the customer. Then, after proving age and identification, the customer will have to blow into a breathalyzer to prove that their present blood alcohol level is less than .02, far below the .08 impairment level.
Dusak laughingly questions whether this self-monitoring system is realistic, given the PLCB’s spotty record of effective control of the sale of alcohol in the state, and the tendency of electronic devices to fail at inopportune times.
“What happens when one of the machine’s scanners or breathalyzer’s breaks down?” he asks skeptically. “What happens when the PLCB employee watching the monitors is overwhelmed by the sheer number of purchasers on a Friday or Saturday night? What about fake ID’s? There are a thousand ways the system can go wrong at any moment.”
Dusak says that because of his organization’s questions, he was denied attendance at a demonstration of the machines for state legislators. He also points out that the very day the campus newspaper The Daily Pennsylvanian ran the story on the vending machines; they also ran the story on a study ranking the University of Pennsylvania 16th among the nation’s most dangerous college campuses.
Dusak sees a correlation.
“Does anyone actually think that more access to alcohol is going to make the campus safer?” he asks. “This is about profit, pure and simple, without regard to consequences. It is the role of the PLCB to control the sale of adult alcoholic beverages in Pennsylvania, not to advocate it.”