Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A little wine, a little beer

I've been watching the current round of debate on New York State allowing the sales of wine in grocery stores with some interest. I also watched the last time, when it got lobbied to death. I, for one, like the idea that if I want wine with dinner instead of beer, I can get it without a special trip to a different store.

Then, I stumbled upon the fact that Pennsylvania is debating the exact same thing, except with respect to beer.

Interestingly, the arguments for/against are more or less exactly the same in structure. The same the-world-will-end-if-we-allow-this prognostication by those opposed, and the same it-makes-life-better-and-gets-us-more-revenue by those supporting it.

What I found really interesting was one place where there were some real numbers around enforcement. One of the arguments against more permissive sales is that grocery stores will be less careful about carding people, making it easier for beer or wine to get into the hands of minors. There are already a few grocery chains in PA that can sell beer, by virtue of the fact that they allow on-premise consumption in their cafe area, and can thus fit into the "tavern" bucket of the existing PA law. (Yes, for those who aren't familiar with it, the current standard way to buy a six-pack in PA is to go to a bar, have a few on-site, and then drive home with your six-pack.)

The enforcement agency uses undercover minors to randomly test retailers. Of the grocery stores tested, none of them ever failed to card someone. Of the private distributors who are the current parallel in PA to the NY liquor stores? 40% failure rate. The argument that grocery stores will be more permissive simply does not stand up to actual data. Now, it's possible that in a more permissive environment the stats would change. I know Wegmans is pretty fastidious about carding people. Nonetheless, the little bit of real data that's available indicates that the argument is bunk.

In the end, I suspect the economics of the situation and various states' desperate need for revenue anywhere they can find it, will drive both of these bills to approval. But for now, it's interesting to see how the debate plays out.