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Wednesday, Sep 19, 2018
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Lawmakers might allow liquor sales in supermarkets

TALLAHASSEE - Shoppers could one day grab their vodka, whiskey and gin along with beer and wine in the grocery aisles of their local supermarket under legislation filed in the Florida Legislature.

State law requires retailers such as Publix and Sweetbay to operate a separate store if they want to sell spirits.

A Publix supermarket, for instance, may have a Publix Liquors right next door in the same shopping center but with its own outside entrance.

Bills now in the House and Senate (HB 877, SB 804) would undo that requirement.

The proposal is one of several alcohol-friendly initiatives under consideration this session.

Others would allow beer tastings at some retail stores that sell beer and legalize the 64-ounce "growler," a juglike container used to sell craft beer.

The liquor store proposal promises to pit the lobbying power of Wal-Mart, which requested the legislation, against the state's alcohol- and drug-abuse prevention community.

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Some are already saying it's an unnecessary expansion of alcoholic beverages' availability.

Not so, says one of the sponsors.

"It's common sense," said Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness. "There's just no reason to have a dividing wall. It's an outdated regulation."

There are still plenty of safeguards against minors getting alcohol without placing a "wall of concrete" in front of responsible adults who can legally buy it, he added.

Susan Pitman, head of Drug Free Duval, an alcohol and substance abuse prevention group, doesn't buy the convenience argument.

Pitman was a policy adviser to the late Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, and worked for Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Webster when he served in the Florida House.

"Having hard liquor at a liquor store seems to be convenient enough," Pitman said. "We're puzzled by why there would be an expansion or change at this point. We don't see the benefit."

Ellen Snelling, chairwoman of the Tampa Alcohol Coalition and the Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance, agrees.

"The liquor stores are smaller, more insulated locations than grocery stores," she said. "That's the best way to restrict access to underage customers, which would be my primary concern."

Moreover, the current law "has been in place for a long time with no problems," Snelling said.

The trade group for independently owned liquor shops makes the same argument, noting that its opposition isn't simply about being afraid of the competition.

"Right now, when a minor enters a liquor store, they're immediately noticed because everyone knows they have no business being there," Rory Eggers, president of the Florida Independent Spirits Association, said in an email. "In a big, busy store like Wal-Mart, minors are everyday welcome customers."

A spokeswoman for the Florida-based ABC chain, which bills itself as the state's "oldest and largest fine wine and spirits merchant," was out of the office.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, originally filed the measure, known as a repealer bill. His district covers seven counties, including southern Hillsborough County.

Galvano, who sits on the Regulated Industries Committee, said Wal-Mart representatives asked him to sponsor the change.

Wal-Mart spokesman Bill Wertz said Florida customers have long complained about being forced to buy adult beverages in a separate location from where they're buying groceries.

"Our goal is to provide customers with the products they want and need at affordable prices, including alcoholic beverages," Wertz said.

The current system, he said, limits consumer choice and doesn't strengthen enforcement of underage drinking laws.

It's also unfair to businesses because it increases costs by requiring them to build, staff and maintain the additional square footage, Wertz said.

Estimates on how much the mega-retailer would save weren't immediately available.

That said, Wal-Mart looks forward to "a solution ... that both expands consumer choice and convenience and levels the playing field for all grocery retailers across the state," he said.

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Shoppers in Tampa who were interviewed said they'll find what they need regardless.

Tampa resident John McCray parked his cart full of bagged groceries outside the door of the Publix liquor store on Gandy Boulevard on Friday and ducked in after buying groceries next door. He didn't mind.

"The fact that they're separate is convenient for those who simply want to buy liquor. You can get in and get out," he said.

But McCray couldn't resist taking a shot at lawmakers in Tallahassee.

"I don't know why they would waste their time on something like this," he said. "Why is this a problem?"

A call to Sweetbay seeking comment wasn't returned. It historically has operated separate liquor stores adjoining some of its locations.

Sweetbay, headquartered in Tampa, has more than 100 stores from Naples to Gainesville.

Its operations were bought from Belgian-based parent company Delhaize Group by Bi-Lo Holdings, which is expected to rebrand them as Winn-Dixies after 33 low-performing locations across the state were closed.

Some Winn-Dixies in Florida also have adjoining liquor shops.

Publix, based in Lakeland, has more than 1,000 stores in the Southeast and is rapidly expanding.

Spokesman Brian West declined comment on how the proposed repeal would affect the company's Florida liquor sales.

The chain operates at least 14 liquor stores in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, according to its website.

"This proposed bill is not specific to Publix, and we did not ask for it," West said.

The House bill will first be reviewed by the Business and Professional Regulation Subcommittee. The Senate version is headed to the Regulated Industries Committee.

Florida's yearly legislative session lasts 60 days and starts March 4.

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