Wine-in-grocery-stores debate: claims vs. facts

8:02 AM, Mar 4, 2013   |    comments
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By Josh Brown, The Tennessean

To hear one side tell it, if the state's grocery stores sell wine, Tennessee will see more alcoholics, more underage drinking and the collapse of countless small liquor stores.

The other camp predicts an economic shot in the arm, stoking wine sales to new highs and making Tennessee the purchasing destination for wine lovers who live near state borders.

State lawmakers are debating yet again legislation that would allow food sellers to also sell wine. A bill cleared a state Senate committee last week - the most progress one has made since supporters began their most recent push.

That bill still faces hurdles: a win in another Senate committee before heading to the Senate floor, approval from the state House, the governor's signature. Then counties already selling wine in liquor stores and restaurants would hold referendums on whether groceries could sell it.

Supporters and opponents are making their breathless arguments in the public eye. Here's what they're saying, and what fact-checking revealed.

• Sales of wine in grocery stores will lead to more alcoholism.

Last week, Vanderbilt University psychiatry professor Peter Martin testified to senators that allowing grocery and convenience stores to sell wine would ultimately increase the rate of alcoholism in the state.

"The major issue here is people want to sell alcohol because they're hoping to make more money, and of course, they're only going to make more money if they sell more," he said.

Martin, who directs the division of addiction psychiatry at the medical school, drew a straight line from higher sales of wine to higher consumption of the beverage.

"If you increase per capita consumption, you increase the number of people who are addicted to alcohol," he said.

While Martin acknowledged at the meeting that he knew of no studies comparing alcoholism in states that allow wine sales in grocery stores and in states that don't, he pointed to studies that have found cheaper alcohol has been associated with higher rates of addiction. He declined to give a follow-up interview.

But Martin's view isn't universal in the field of addiction psychiatry. Mike Baron, a Nashville psychiatrist who specializes in addiction, said the measure would have little to no impact on alcoholism in Tennessee.

"It's not going to make any difference," Baron said. "I have never heard or never seen any literature that those states that have wine in the grocery store have a higher relapse rate or a higher alcoholism rate."

Recovering alcoholics will have little problem from increased availability of alcohol, Baron said.

"If they're going to want to drink, they're going to plan it out and get alcohol," he said. "Generally those alcoholics who don't want to look at beer or want to avoid it, they just won't go down that aisle. And they'll do the same with the wine aisle."

• Convenience and grocery stores aren't as diligent in checking identification, so selling wine there will increase underage drinking.

In recent months, Madison County Sheriff David Woolfork has been outspoken against bringing wine sales to food stores.

Woolfork said his officers have seen firsthand the impact alcohol can have on underage drinkers. He believes the measure would worsen the problem.

"The fact that you have more convenience stores selling more wine," he said, "the more underage are going to be drinking."

Woolfork worries that convenience store clerks aren't as diligent in checking IDs as other alcohol sellers.

"Convenience stores have such a tremendous turnover," he said. "Two words come to my mind, and that's convenience versus public safety."

But Madison County wine and spirits stores appear to be cited at a higher rate than food sellers, according to a comparison of citation figures provided by law enforcement and state alcohol officials.

Since 2009, county narcotics officers have handed out 59 citations to grocery and convenience stores, of which there are 250 in the county. That translates to a rate of roughly 23.6 percent. In the same time period, state alcohol control officials gave five citations to liquor stores, of which there are a dozen in the county. That translates to a rate of roughly 41.6 percent.

The data don't reflect where agents choose to focus their attention or whether stores had multiple citations, which could affect the rates.

Law enforcement officers in Virginia have found no correlation between underage drinking and sales of wine in grocery stores, said Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.

"We don't have a problem with that coming out of the grocery stores, because they do diligently check IDs," she said. "And the thing about grocery stores is that they do have better surveillance systems."

• If shoppers are allowed to buy wine at the same time as their food, then wine and spirits stores will lose money and be forced to close.

"It would be devastating," said Bard Quillman, owner of Red Dog Wine & Spirits in Franklin. "I can't tell you exactly what I'm going to lose, but I can tell you I'm going to lose."

Quillman, who serves on the board of the Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association, said if people buy more wine, it also could hurt sales of other goods.

"If people buy more wine, that purchase comes out of their discretionary income," he said. "If I choose to buy a bottle of wine, then I will choose to not buy something else. I won't buy a movie ticket. I won't go out to dinner."

Other wine store owners acknowledge some changes could allow them to survive if the measure passes.

Brent Barnett, general manager of McScrooge's Wines & Spirits in Knoxville, wrote a letter to a lawmaker urging changes to allow stores like his to sell items other than high-alcohol beverages. "We would welcome the ability to sell beer, glassware, apparel and any other items," he wrote.

Barnett also wants lawmakers to let liquor store operators own multiple locations and stay open 365 days a year - instead of being closed on Sundays and certain holidays.

"These legal changes may bring the opportunity to create stronger, retail stores that will, in the end, create more jobs, in addition to revenue for local citizens, the city and the state," he wrote.

Jayson Butler, who owns Highway 64 Liquor Store in Giles County, has arrived at the same conclusion.

"I'm definitely not ready for the grocery stores being able to sell the wine," he said. "I don't want to go into this thing empty-handed. If it passes with nothing else, it's going to be bad."

Butler also wants more freedom to expand the items he sells, such as accessories - like wine stoppers and corkscrews - and low-alcohol beer.

"That never really made any sense to me, not being able to sell low-gravity beer," he said. "But that's the way it was, and I played by the rules."

• Tennessee is losing tax revenue from shoppers who live near the border with states that allow grocery stores to sell wine.

If shoppers don't live far from wine-selling groceries across state borders, they will drive a little farther and spend their money out of state, the grocery lobby contends.

There's anecdotal evidence that really happens. In recent years, Costco Wholesale Corp. opened one of its large retail stores just over the state line in Georgia near Chattanooga. Ron Harr, head of Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, said that since the store opened, Chattanooga residents have streamed across the state line to shop.

"Our concern is the loss of the tax revenue," he said. "People are not only buying their wine there, but they're buying their groceries. We'd rather they keep that tax revenue in Tennessee."

But it's likely factors other than convenience of buying wine and food at the same time are prompting the longer drive.

A check Friday showed that at that Costco store across the Georgia line, a bottle of St. Francis cabernet sauvignon was $14.99 plus 7 percent sales tax. The same bottle at Riverside Wine, Spirits and Beverages in Chattanooga was $19.99 plus 9.25 percent tax. An Erath pinot noir cost $14.99 at the big-box store, $19.99 at the wine store.

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