alcohol policy

As alcohol regulations vary state-by-state and constantly shifting here is a quick roundup of booze news from around the states:

In federal news, following the FDA crackdown on alcoholic energy drinks, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) issued a statement clarifying its role in the regulation of such products.

In Pennsylvania, a state Supreme Court ruling upheld the right of Wegmans grocery store to sell beer at several of its locations throughout Pennsylvania, a notoriously strict alcohol-control state. The ruling found that the state liquor control board was in the right when it issues licenses to the grocery chain to sell beer so long as the store has a restaurant with seating for 30 or more, a food menu, and a minimum of 400 square feet. The Malt Beverage Distributors in the state are, predictably, unhappy with the ruling.

In other “dumb Pennsylvania liquor news” (I weep for my home state), the wine kiosk program gets some undesirable, but well-deserved derision from Wired magazine. Rather than allowing adults to purchase wine in grocery stores, the state has devised a “technological workaround” by placing kiosks in select stores that carry a limited variety of wines for purchase… if you can make past the “kafka-esque security measures”:

Each machine is connected to a state employee in Harrisburg, via video-camera. A customer chooses their wine, swipes their ID, puffs into a breathalyzer and faces the camera. The state employee checks that the ID matches the person and, if they’re not already intoxicated, the person is allowed to buy the wine.

Or you can just do your shopping in Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, or Ohio (whichever border state is closest).

In Texas, there’s talk of raising the excise taxes on beer: 19 cents to 35 cents per gallon of beer. Charles Hodges, CEO of Stop DWI, Inc., is pushing for the tax increase as he believes the additional $4 million a month from beer taxes would plug the holes in the state’s budget.

In Colorado, the newly elected governor, John Hickenlooper, gives those pushing for full-strength beer in grocery stores little hope. Despite the fact that Colorado’s zany liquor laws have resulted in bars and restaurants being banned from selling low-alcohol beer, Hickenlooper indicated he likes the status quo and doesn’t want to legislate “something that the small breweries think will put them at a disadvantage.” But grocery and convenience stores plan on trying again anyway, for a fourth time, to amend the state’s outdated laws and get full-strength beer on their shelves.

Ari and Lin Armstrong have a great piece in the Grand Junction Free Press on why it is finally time for a free beer market in Colorado.

In IllinoisCrain’s Chicago Business released their investigative report that shows big distributors of beer are employing illegal pay-to-play tactics and shutting out craft brews from the Chicago beverage market. In Chicago, like most cities in the U.S., brewers and bar/restaurant owners can’t deal with one another directly; they are forced by law to operate through a middleman called a distributor or wholesaler. The distributor takes on a portfolio of beers and then sells them to bars and restaurants. The revealing study shows why we should abolish the mandatory three-tier system, which requires the use of a distributor and establish the right for breweries, vineyards, and distilleries to directly ship their products.

In Tennessee, regulators are getting wise to the unintended consequence of their out-dated laws that limit the alcohol by volume of beer sold in grocery store to brew under 6.3 percent abv when border-state Georgia allows beer up to 14 percent abv.

In Maryland, wine and beer “enthusiasts” are set to introduce a proposal in several Maryland counties that would overturn a law that prevents patrons of restaurants with liquor licenses from bringing in their own wine. “Corkage,” as it is called, is the fee a customer pays to the restaurant for each bottle consumed by the diners that was not purchased at the restaurant. Corkage proponents want to make it so that even at non-BYOB establishments they can bring their own bottles to the table. The proposal may be considered by the Maryland General Assembly after January 12.

In West Virginia, legislators affirm that increasing alcohol taxes is not on their agenda. According to Delegate-elect Eric Householder, a Republican out of Jefferson County:

We’re back to the point of government taking care of everything for everybody … I have a litmus test … I’ve taken the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, I’ve put myself out there that I would not raise taxes. So I’m going to have a litmus test. Does this increase taxes? Does this increase government intervention? Is this an expansion of government? If I can answer yes to any one of those, obviously it’s legislation that I would not pass.

In Michigan, despite the un-banning of Sunday sales in the state (kind of), several counties intend to continue disallowing Sunday sales until noon or for the entire day.

Next year bars and dine-in restaurants in Colorado might be forced by law to stop selling light, low-calorie, and low-alcohol beers.

Any beer under 4% alcohol by volume would technically not be a malt beverage and in Colorado bars and restaurants are only licensed to sell liquor, wine, and malt liquor. While the provision isn’t new the new enforcement of the code may mean that by next year bars may have to stop selling light and low-calorie beers like Amstel, Heineken, Yeungling, Michelob, MGD 64, Bud Select 55, and even some non-light beers like Murphy’s Irish Stout; all of which come in under 4% ABV. At the same time, grocery and convenience stores will continue to sell beers that fall under the 3.2% alcohol by volume threshold.

That number, 3.2% might sound familiar if you’ve followed my coverage of the Colorado beer-in-grocery-store fight that has been raging in the state in recent years. Currently, Colorado grocery stores can sell beer as long as it is less than 3.2% alcohol by volume. In recent years grocery and convenience store owners have made a push, challenging the laws and asking that they be allowed to sell full-strength beer-currently only available in liquor stores, restaurants, and bars. Liquor store lobbyist have been able, thus far, to thwart such attempts and last year, after another failed effort, grocery store owners and their supporters in the legislature amended a bill that would require the liquor laws in the state to be enforced to the letter.

“Either stop selling the product we sell, or let’s stop having this false delineation on beer,” said Jason Hopfer, lobbyist for a group of convenience stores. “Let’s let beer be beer.”

It seems that the grocery and convenience store owners are employing a strategy whereby the customer and bar owners will be as inconvenienced as they are and perhaps they will be incensed enough to call their representatives and vote down the silly state laws.

It might actually work. Parties that have thus stayed away from the debate are suddenly taking an interest:

Pub owner Patrick Schaetzl had this to say:

It’s ridiculous…I don’t understand why the nanny state would (ban beers) when the other stuff is three, four and five times more alcohol by volume. It’s going to hurt a lot of places.
While Pete Meersman, president of the Colorado Restaurant Association said:
“We’re not really involved in this fight,” said “Our members feel like they ought to be able to sell the stuff. “
Patrons, too, are beginning to see their stake in the fight. Two bar patrons interviewed by the Denver Post added:
“In a lot of ways, they’re safer beers to drink,” said Maloney, who sticks to low-alcohol beer when he’s skiing. “It’s really just another way for state government to make things complicated.”
While liquor stores are already drafting bills to cut-off the latest grocery-store strategy, perhaps Coloradans will begin to see what Maloney, Meersman, Schaetzl, and convenience stores see: the state government of Colorado should not be telling business owners and grown adults what drinks they can buy where.

Have a listen here.

Baylen Linnekin, author of the recent CEI On Point “Extreme Refreshment Crackdown: The FDA’s Misguided Campaign Against Alcohol Energy Drinks” and contributor to the food regulation blog Crispy on the Outside, looks at the recent push to ban alcoholic drinks that contain caffeine.

Baylen believes that regulators are over-reacting. Alcohol energy drinks typically contain no more caffeine than a cup of coffee, and their appeal to underage drinkers is overstated.