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December 31, 2013

KOHRMAN: It's the same old argument

— Heading into the 2014 legislative session in Indiana, the argument again is being made — in a tired and worn way — that Indiana’s laws controlling the sales of alcohol are outmoded, inconvenient and circumspect.

In reality, the restrictions on selling alcohol — both through administrative permitting rules and states laws — have been whittled away for years by massive retailers, big-box chains and gas stations that want to sell alcohol with as few restrictions as possible.

Those retailers — Kroger, Rickers, Family Express, Thorntons, Meijer, Costco and Walmart (just to name a few) — are not bound by current laws that apply to package stores. Package store owners must reside in Indiana and locate their stores within city limits, hire clerks that are a minimum age of 21 in order to sell alcohol and require their employees to hold special state permits. This is not so for a grocery store, where a clerk can be under the age of 21.

Why don’t these laws apply to all retailers as opposed to high school students potentially selling wine and beer to their friends from the neighborhood grocery?

Due to state’s rights, alcohol laws vary from state to state — from the times of day when sales can be made to the percentage of alcohol in spirits that can be sold. Missouri, for example, allows parents and guardians to legally provide alcohol to their children.

For a little history lesson, Indiana’s package liquor stores were created after Prohibition was repealed and put into place by the 1935 Liquor Control Act. That’s an important point.

Package stores were intentionally created by lawmakers who decided that a substance like alcohol would be handled in a specific way and sold in a specific manner by a specific source — as a regulated product.

But how do consumers feel?

According to a new and bipartisan national poll commissioned by the Center for Alcohol Policy (CAP), Americans are very satisfied with their alcohol variety, access and regulation.

Additionally, Americans do not think alcohol is just like other consumer products, and they support state regulations on alcohol that are not found on other consumer goods.

∞ 81 percent believe states should regulate alcohol because it is different from other consumer goods.

∞ 89 percent agree that government regulation on alcohol is necessary to keep people safe, in some instances.

∞ 82 percent support the current legal drinking age of 21 or older.

Americans also believe that local businesses that understand the local community should manage local alcohol distribution and sales.

∞ 79 percent support the rights of states to determine their own laws and regulations regarding the sale of alcohol.

∞ 73 percent believe that local businesses should be in charge of alcohol distribution in their communities since they better understand community preferences.

The reference to local community and local businesses is particularly important here.

Some special interest groups continue to depict their push for no controls on alcohol as a groundswell movement of irritated consumers offended by “archaic” laws. But Hoosiers aren’t knocking down the doors of the Indiana Statehouse demanding a new law that lets them buy cold beer at gas stations on Sundays.

As we head into this legislative session, we’ll offer the same take we’ve had as this assault on regulation continues — that sound public policy controlling the sale of alcohol should be consistent, and that erasing any and all restrictions on alcohol sales is a recipe for disaster.

So do Hoosiers support selling alcohol everywhere, anytime by anyone? It just isn’t so. If this was a true advocacy movement with real consumers behind it, we doubt we’d be having this argument year after year.

And if there is a successful rollback pushed by out-of-state corporate interests, then maybe we’ll be serving our kids alcohol like they do in Missouri.

Note: The national telephone survey of 1,000 adults over the age of 21 was conducted by Whitman Insight Strategies and WPA Opinion Research on behalf of the Center for Alcohol Policy in August 2013.

— Steve Kohrman is chairman of the Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers, the industry voice for package liquor stores. Reach him at stevekohrman@frontier.com

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