States Review Longstanding Alcohol Laws

In recent years, many jurisdictions have modernized and eased longstanding alcohol restrictions. In June, both Colorado and Pennsylvania enacted laws that were described as the biggest changes to the industry since Prohibition was repealed.

“I don’t think there’s any question that in the last 10 to 15 years, there’s been quite an uptick in wanting to change many of these laws,” said Steven Schmidt, senior vice president of public policy and communications at the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, which provides research, analytics and regulatory information to its member jurisdictions. “A lot of it seems to be focused on providing more access around the country.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf called the liquor reform bill that he signed on June 8 historic. The governor said the legislation was the most significant step taken to reform the state’s liquor laws in 80 years.

Two days later, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill concerning alcohol retail sales that some media outlets called the biggest change to alcohol sales regulation since Prohibition.

The Colorado law allows grocers and major retail chains to gradually expand sales to their other locations over the next 20 years. Prior to this change, the retailers had to limit alcohol sales to one store in the state.

In a June 10 letter to the Colorado Senate, Hickenlooper said Senate Bill 16-197 served as a compromise after debate about whether or not to allow expanded sales of distilled spirits, wine and full-strength beer at grocery stores. Hickenlooper said he signed the law in hopes that ballot initiatives would be withdrawn as part of the compromise.

“This bill is a laudable effort by the sponsors at compromise between certain large grocery stores seeking to offer greater options for their customers, and independently-owned retail liquor stores set to endure heavy revenue losses should the laws they operate under change overnight,” Hickenlooper wrote in the letter.

Hickenlooper said it was agreed that state law in the area was dated and haphazard, but existing laws caused the industry’s growth and success.

“Any change to existing liquor laws must be carefully measured so as to minimize harm to a vital network of local retail businesses and, in turn, Colorado’s craft distilleries, breweries and wineries,” the letter said.

Schmidt said large retailers support increased access to alcohol, but some independent businesses have grown under existing laws and don’t want the competition.

“They all created and have built their models over those years based on those state laws,” he said.

In Pennsylvania, the new law goes into effect Aug. 8. Grocery stores that sell beer will be allowed to sell wine, with some limits on the amount sold. The law removes Sunday restrictions, provides options for flexible pricing to allow state stores to offer special discounts and sales, permits the direct shipment of wine to homes and allows restaurants and hotels to sell wine for takeout.

“This is truly a historic day for Pennsylvania and the most significant step the commonwealth has taken to reform our liquor system in 80 years,” Wolf said in a June 8 press release.

“As I have always said, my goal is to modernize the sale of liquor and beer in Pennsylvania and this reform package finally brings Pennsylvania’s wine and spirits system into the 21st century,” he said.

House Speaker Mike Turzai, who sponsored the bill, echoed the governor. He said the law was a tremendous leap to carry the state in the 21st century.

“This privatization bill will bring consumers the added choice and convenience they have been asking for since Prohibition,” Turzai said.

The House Appropriations Committee estimated that the expansion of alcohol access could generate $150 million in new revenue, according to a June 8 story in The Patriot News.

Attitudes about alcohol have shifted among retailers, policymakers and consumers, Schmidt said. Big box stores and groceries look at alcohol like any other product on their shelves, and those stores often want to be one-stop shops.

“A product, which was only sold in most places at a unique store for these products—or certainly separated—today is one that people want to sell in any place that a consumer might go to buy groceries or other products,” Schmidt said.

In addition to the pressure retailers might feel to sell alcohol, many consumers across the country feel that government should be limited, Schmidt said.

“As they view alcohol as any other product, they start to see these regulations and restrictions as not making any sense,” he said. “In other words, they forget about the fact that this is a product that could cause harm. They only think about how they use the product, which may be very responsibly.”