The histories of gasoline and ethanol (“drinking alcohol”) go back for more than a century. Ethanol fueled Henry Ford’s Model T in 1908. It was first blended with gasoline in the 1920s and 1930s, a practice that was revived in the 1970s and continues to this day.

In the United States, the conflict over gasoline-ethanol mostly concerns corn crops, public subsidies and government mandates. Here in the Cayman Islands, it’s a bit different.

As our readers saw on the front page of Monday’s Compass, the local controversy doesn’t involve what’s sold at the pump for the purpose of combustion, but what’s sold inside convenience stores for the purpose of intoxication.

Put another way, should Cayman’s gas stations be allowed to obtain liquor licenses and sell beer, wine and spirits?

“But don’t they already?” some readers might respond. True, one gas station in George Town and two in Bodden Town are currently allowed to sell intoxicating beverages, but that’s under the terms of licenses that were “grandfathered in” decades ago.

Objecting to a new liquor license application by developer Gary Rutty, who is building a Rubis station on Shamrock Road, license holders Robert Hamaty, Prentice Panton and David Khouri wrote that, “It has been government’s policy since 2002 not to grant liquor licenses to gas stations,” pointing to an order from Cabinet to the Liquor Licensing Board to that effect.

The objectors continue, “If this new license is granted, how will the Liquor Licensing Board justify refusing applications from the 22 other stations on [Grand Cayman]?”

That’s a valid question for the board to consider — but, seen through the eyes of the consumer, it’s not the most important one.

From the general population’s perspective, we would ask, “Why does Grand Cayman have an appointed Liquor Licensing Board in the first place?” (And the related, “Why do the Sister Islands have their own liquor board?”)

Speaking frankly, we don’t know what the board should or shouldn’t do with Mr. Rutty’s application, in the context of the objection, the Cabinet order, “grandfathered-in” licenses, the appearance of setting precedent, or potential ramifications to the house of cards the liquor industry has erected under the board’s supervision.

In fact, the way we see it, each of those points constitutes an argument against the structure of the current regulatory apparatus, and perhaps the existence of the board itself.

In these changing (and already changed) times, it’s not simply that the appointed board is an anachronism; it’s that the pretense of regulating alcohol as a “controlled substance” on an island packed to the brim with bars, clubs, restaurants, hotels, stores, ships and sundry other dispensaries is an obvious fiction. Allowing one — or 100 — gas stations to sell alcohol isn’t going to encourage a single person to start drinking, or to start drinking more.

(And don’t get us started on the liquor board’s other directive, “music and dancing licenses.”)

We don’t understand the necessity of injecting an appointed board in the middle of what should be an administrative, tick-the-box exercise between the license applicant and, say, the Department of Commerce and Investment.

Philosophically, we aren’t in favor of having more or fewer retailers. We do support free enterprise and capitalism.

“Should gas stations be selling liquor?” As far as the free market is concerned, here’s an equally valid question: “Should liquor stores be installing gas pumps?”

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6 COMMENTS

  1. We all know Cayman has a serious drinking problem and I think this is a reasonable policy as it does make a difference in many lives. Haven’t you ever been to a convenience or grocery store and bought something on a whim that you didn’t originally intend to? This isn’t a particularly overreaching policy with very few negative effects to businesses and it makes a positive impact on our society.

    The free-market-cures-all theory that this paper constantly espouses is embarrassingly simple. Yes, the free market is vital to our economy, but the markets interests are often antithetical to the interests of our society. Is it so wrong for a country to be in control of its own image and destiny?

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  2. In the original story the objection letter is quoted as stating “The purpose of the Liquor Licensing Law is to control the dispensation of alcohol, a controlled drug.” A rather ironical statement considering that two of the largest liquor outlets on Grand Cayman are currently encouraging their customers to buy even more of it by offering a 50% discount on the second bottle.

    If fact what I suspect the objectors are more worried about is the impact on their businesses and with good reason. For decades in the UK carry out sales of alcohol were restricted to what were known as ‘Off-Licences’. Even pubs were barred from selling alcohol for consumption off the premises unless they had a separate licence.

    However, in recent years alcohol laws in the UK have been relaxed allowing supermarkets, convenience stores and service stations not only to sell alcohol but to sell it pretty much 24/7. Good news for consumers but the effect on the off-licence trade was, as anticipated, devastating and I’m sure that’s what the objectors can see happening here.

    Call me cynical if you like but this sounds to me more like domestic protectionism like genuine concerns. After all if the objectors were really so concerned about the impact of alcohol, which they themselves describe as a controlled drug, on society they wouldn’t be importing and selling stuff in the first place would they?

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  3. If supermarkets can’t sell a bottle of wine to go with your Sunday roast I don’t think gas stations should sell drivers a bottle of rum, I know it’s a fine line, but we don’t need any encouragement for drinking and driving, giving drivers easier access to alcohol won’t turn law abiding drivers into drunk drivers, but it won’t help those who regularly do drink and drive. The island is too small for unfettered competition, I know it’s a protectionist attitude but do we really want a liquor store on every corner (yes it’s an exaggeration but…).

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    • Which obviously raises the question, ‘Why shouldn’t supermarkets sell you a bottle of wine?’ In the UK I can buy wine in my corner shop. I was in NY state in June, we bought wine in a supermarket there.

      Right now a line has to be drawn. Either you protect the current liquor shop monopolies or you do what they did in the UK and accept that alcohol is a consumer commodity that can be sold anywhere.

      That’s the real problem and anyone making the decisions on this has to be both squeaky clean and free from any accusations of conflicts of interest. If that isn’t the case (and I’m not saying for one second it isn’t) this is simply to going to end up in a round of costly litigation and my guess is that in the end CIG will lose.

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      • You are correct that there are some protectionist motivations behind this decision, but that isn’t the full story. Instead of only thinking about businesses and consumers, we need to also take into consideration public health, crime, and our values. There have been many studies around the world on this exact issue and the results are inconclusive on the best way forward (similar to casinos). Many other places around the world have made the same choice we have for valid reasons. It really isn’t as black and white as you make it out to be.

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