Alcohol Rules Disrupt Holiday Cheer

Alcohol Rules Disrupt Holiday Cheer

December 20, 2010
Originally published in McClatchy News Service

Appeared in: The Providence Journal

You might want to send a beautifully packaged wine and cheese gift basket to friends in New York State. But don’t even try because it’s against the law. That’s just one of many silly alcohol regulations that may disrupt your holiday cheer.

The prohibition on shipping wine with cheese stems from New York’s law banning the sale of alcohol in supermarkets. The law states that retailers cannot sell food and alcohol in the same business, which apparently applies to online retailers. Wine.com notes on its website that it will ship the wine in one box and the cheese in another.

New York is not alone in its folly. More than a dozen states do not allow alcohol to be sold in supermarkets. Alcohol shipments are completely illegal in Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Utah.

What about bringing some special wine to a holiday party held at a Maryland or Virginia restaurant? That’s fine, as long as you don’t plan to drink it. Corkage is illegal in both states and several others.

And don’t forget to chill beer at home before bringing it to a party in Indiana. You can’t pick up cold beer on the way. It’s against Indiana law for retailers to sell prechilled beer for off-premise consumption.

You can’t even sip eggnog mixed with a little rum at a bar in Utah unless you also order food. And don’t even think about working the crowd with that eggnog. It is against Utah law to drink it anywhere but at your table or near the bar counter. And when the clock strikes midnight, no more eggnog for you!

Such laws originate from a culture promoted by the temperance movement, which waged war against alcohol at the turn of the century, culminating in our nation’s failed experiment with prohibition. But why do some of these laws persist today? They are the fruit of special-interest politics.

Consider states that ban the sale of alcohol in supermarkets. The key parties preventing change are the retailers that own existing rights to sell liquor — be they private or government liquor stores.

Liquor wholesalers serve as the primary special interest fighting direct shipping of liquor. They spend millions of dollars lobbying to protect state laws mandating that producers sell all alcohol to wholesalers, who then sell to retailers.

One exception is wine shipped from winery to consumer, which does not pass even a nickel to wholesalers. The number of states allowing direct-to-consumer wine shipping from wineries has increased in recent years. Wholesalers fear such expansions of market competition.

Wholesalers also fight efforts to allow retailers — rather than wineries alone—to ship wine to consumers across state lines. Wholesalers know that some retailers reside in jurisdictions — primarily California and Washington, D. C. — that allow them to skip wholesalers and buy direct from producers. Giving those retailers the right to ship to consumers could help break the wholesalers’ hegemony.

After consumers toast the new year, state legislatures will begin their sessions that could produce positive change. Some will consider supermarket sales, some Sunday sales, and others will wrangle over direct shipping. And the Supreme Court might even consider hearing a case that could allow retailers to ship wine directly to consumers.

What can consumers do? Make a new year resolution to speak up and call for an end to special-interest alcohol politics and the crazy, anti-consumer regulations it produces.