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It’s 2010, but don’t tell our state government. Officials in Harrisburg still think it’s 1933.

That would explain why dear old Pennsylvania remains one of the few states with prohibition-era alcohol regulations that prevent private shops and grocery stores from selling wine. To help modernize the system, the state’s Liquor Control Board recently announced it has plans to install roughly 100 wine vending machines at various supermarkets this year.

Sounds convenient, right? Wait ‘till you hear how these machines work.

After you make your selection, you’ll have to swipe your driver’s license to prove you aren’t underage. Then, make sure you smile. A camera on the machine will transmit your image live to an office in Harrisburg, where some lucky government employee will look at the video image and make sure that it matches the image on the license.

Then — and this is my favorite part — you’ll have to blow at the vending machine’s Breathalyzer so the government can ensure you’re not intoxicated. If you get past these steps, you will be allowed to complete your purchase with a credit card (no cash accepted).

I swear I am not making this up.

It’s another example of government making things more complicated than necessary. Pennsylvania’s legislature prohibits most private sales or distribution of wine. So instead of walking into any grocery store, buying a bottle and having your ID checked at the counter, residents must either travel to a separate government-run store or go through a cumbersome process to get wine out of a vending machine.

Whoever thought of this whole system had to have been seriously wasted.

It’s telling that the most common reaction I got from students about this was laughter. “It seems like a logistical nightmare,” said first-year Wharton MBA student Amanda Powers, who said she might consider using the machine.

I’d accept all this bureaucracy if it significantly reduced alcohol abuse and saved lives. Unfortunately, the results seem mixed at best.

Ask the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. According to their 2007 drug survey, Pennsylvania had the 24th-highest level of underage drinking. In a more recent 50-state study by Gannett Wisconsin Media, Pennsylvania had the 17th-highest level of binge and heavy drinking and the 23rd-highest level of drunk driving fatalities.

In short, Pennsylvania’s a little worse than average, despite having one of the strictest liquor control systems in the nation. So, can private wine stores prove just as safe as our state-run stores? It’s a tough question, says Rebecca Shaver, state executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“We do appreciate the system [Pennsylvania has] in place,” she told me, rightfully pointing out that state-run store employees are very well trained in preventing underage access to alcohol. “We feel that more availability will lead to more consumption.”

There’s some truth to that argument. But at the very least, the data suggests that government control of wine sales isn’t essential to fighting alcohol abuse.

So why hasn’t Harrisburg reformed the system? In a January 2008 piece, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette talked to state leaders involved in past liquor-privatization attempts. According to those sources, a coalition of social conservatives and unions (representing employees of the state-run stores) defeated any attempts at reform.

In all this, I feel sorry for the Liquor Control Board. Officials there have tried to improve the consumer’s experience at state-run stores, and in many areas have succeeded. But as the wine-kiosk scheme illustrates, Board officials have to think of increasingly weird ideas to increase convenience while still meeting the state’s obscure regulations.

To the politicians in Harrisburg: it’s time for an intervention. Even nondrinkers like me realize that our state’s alcohol laws need to catch up with the rest of society — and finally enter the 21st century.

Ashwin Shandilya is a Wharton senior originally from New Market, Md. He is the outoging Marketing Manager and former Editorial Page Editor of the DP. His e-mail address is

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