Prohibition

A Tiny Reform to a Massachusetts Booze Law Reform Faces Big Opposition

Independent booze retailers are trying to stifle competition using arguments from Prohibition.

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Massachusetts alcohol buyers could see a tiny measure of relief from the state's overbearing prohibition on retail alcohol discounts if a bill introduced earlier this year becomes law. But a powerful lobby group is pushing back.

The proposed reform centers on a Massachusetts law that requires licensed alcohol retailers to file "a schedule of minimum consumer prices for each such brand of alcoholic beverages" with the state. That law also prohibits sellers from beating those scheduled prices. "No licensee authorized to sell alcoholic beverages at retail for off-premises consumption shall sell, offer to sell, solicit an order for, or advertise, any alcoholic beverages at a price less than the minimum consumer resale price then in effect," it states.

Practically, that means "Massachusetts law prohibits retailers from selling alcoholic beverages for 'less than [the] invoiced cost,'" the beer information site Brewhound explained earlier this year in a piece on a lawsuit challenging the minimum-price requirement. "The state defines 'cost' as the 'net cost appearing on the invoice for' an alcoholic beverage."

The minimum-price requirement is awful. But the proposed reform, sponsored by State Rep. Ted Speliotis (D–Danvers), wouldn't eliminate it. Instead, it would simply allow stores to offer coupons to customers, which state law also currently prohibits.

"One may ask, why offer the coupons when the store can simply discount the product—as long as it does not fall below the list price?" Speliotis—who represents the town where my parents lives—wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed this month promoting his bill. "The answer is quite simple: Coupons would allow owners to increase their base of customers by introducing more people to their stores and products through advertising." Speliotis also notes Chinese restaurants, pizza parlors, and other small, local businesses often use coupon mailings to stimulate business.

Large retailers in the state support the reform bill. One of those retailers, Total Wine, found its low prices ran afoul of the Massachusetts rules. Total Wine's "crime," reported the Everett Independent in 2017, is that "they're giving deals that are too good." Heavens.

But "packies"—as independently owned retail liquor stores across Massachusetts are known—oppose Speliotis's measure.

In a counterpoint that ran in the Globe alongside Speliotis's piece, Robert Mellion, who heads the packies' lobby group, argues even this minimal reform would open the floodgates for access to cheap alcohol, which he opposes.

Citing a Prohibition-era study, Mellion argues the Massachusetts law exists because alcohol discounts before Prohibition—100 years ago—spurred "poverty, widespread alcoholism, and reduced worker productivity."

Speliotis, whose efforts to legalize alcohol coupons failed last year, rightly isn't buying those tired claims.

"The argument was, if we make it too easy for the consumer, they'll drink too much," Speliotis said earlier this year after he'd introduced the coupon bill. "But society has changed, and we're the only state that still imposes this kind of restriction."

Supporters of the booze-discount ban claim it levels the playing field for small mom-and-pop stores that might otherwise not be able to compete.

That argument is also shortsighted and likely incorrect. If mom-and-pop packies don't face pressure from large in-state sellers, then they'll simply feel that same pressure from outside the state. That's the current reality. New Hampshire's state-owned liquor stores (that'd be a whole different column) offer better prices than their private Massachusetts competitors, even including special discounts to thank the out-of-state buyers who make up half their sales.

(And if you're willing to put aside for a moment the crappiness of government-owned liquor stores as both concept and shopping experience, New Hampshire's periodic trolling of Massachusetts lawmakers is amusing.)

As I've long decried, Massachusetts has prohibited bars and restaurants from offering drink discounts for more than three decades. So maybe it's not a huge surprise that a state that bans happy hour would also prohibit liquor stores from offering similar discounts.

The fact even the very modest reform State Rep. Speliotis has proposed is facing such powerful opposition is a testament to the very messed up state of alcohol regulation in Massachusetts. Protecting packies at the expense of its consumers is an awful policy that ensures the vestiges of Prohibition are alive and well in Massachusetts.

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  1. Baptists and bootleggers.

    But I thought minimum pricing and cartel regulation on alcohol was fairly common – I know here in Georgia I can go into Publix and see a cart of “clearance” priced wine at the end of the wine aisle with a sign on it saying that by law this is the lowest price they can charge so don’t bother asking for further discounts or waiting for the price to go lower.

    And locally, while beer and wine can be sold just about anywhere, liquor can only be sold at licensed liquor stores and the number of licenses has been capped specifically because “too many” liquor stores would increase competition and cut into the stores’ profit margins. No shit, that’s exactly the argument the city council used when they issued the regulations on liquor sales. Liquor sales are still prohibited in the county. The county has however allowed Sunday sales of beer and wine while the city still prohibits Sunday sales of alcohol so it’s a mish-mash of deregulation.

    1. Only in the eastern part of the country.

      In Arizona, outside of a short ‘can’t sell’ time-period (from, like 3am to 6am) and the new-license lottery its . . . like the wild west as far as alcohol sales go.

    2. Georgia also has a limit on the number of liquor stores a single operator may own. In the Atlanta area only 2 Total Wine and 2 Trader Joe’s are allowed to sell liquor. As far as I know no Publix’ sell liquor.

      Georgia like a lot of states grants significant control to local jurisdictions for controlling alcohol sales of all kinds. Not long ago Sunday sales of any packaged alcohol was prohibited. More recently the Sunday opening time was allowed to move back under the so called “Brunch Law”, subject to a local referendum.

      1. Flying out of ATL a long time ago, I finally got a ticket transfer worked out, and asked the ticket agent ‘Where’s the nearest place to get a beer?’
        It was Sunday. He didn’t even smile, but said ‘Son, you’re in Baptist country’.

  2. “ alcohol discounts before Prohibition—100 years ago—spurred “poverty, widespread alcoholism, and reduced worker productivity.”

    But people are much more responsible about their drinking now. We don’t even drive drunk if it’s more than a 10 mile trip!

  3. Dutch high court rules that certain ambient temperatures are a “human right”:

    “Dutch activists celebrate victory in landmark climate case”
    […]
    “The court upheld lower court rulings that protection from the potentially devastating effects of climate change is a human right and that the government has a duty to protect its citizens.”
    https://www.sfgate.com/world/article/Dutch-activists-celebrate-victory-in-landmark-14922643.php

    Beyond comment…

    1. Good.

      When Democrats are back in the White House in 2021, hopefully they expand the Supreme Court with more RBG-style justices who believe in the LIVING CONSTITUTION. I suspect the penumbras and emanations can be interpreted to protect similar temperature rights in the US.

      #Only12YearsLeft

      1. “RBG-style justices”. So like almost dead and about to be replaced by Trump in his next term?

        1. RBG is in perfect health. She will step down only when her replacement(s) can be nominated by a Democratic President. And that’s just over one year away.

          #BlueWave2020

          1. Three years away in the “I waited too late” direction.

          2. Must be fun and exciting to live in a imaginary world where “perfect health” means repeated bouts with cancer and recent hospitalization because of a flu. Sounds like a strong contender.

          3. If your trolling gets any more obvious, you’re going to turn to stone in sunlight.

    2. An individual right is a moral claim to freedom of action. The word freedom, like “free exercise” in 1A and “free State” in 2A means no initiation of force–so no burning at the stake and no Kristallnacht laws. Europeons believe devoutly in religious murder and Kristallnacht laws, so to them our view of eudaimonia-based rights seems ludicrous. Ask anyone in Merrie Olde pre-Brexit Eurgland if this ain’t so. The Dutch used to value individual rights before May of 1940.

      1. Pretty rare I learn a new word; thanks.

    3. I feel like we have sixth Ice Age movie title:.
      Ice Age: Dutch Oven.

    4. So air conditioning is a human right?
      Which democrat will be the first to offer free air conditioning for all dwellings, workplaces, and areas of entertainment?

    5. The Netherlands is all kinds messed up on social issues.

  4. “if we make it too easy for the consumer, they’ll drink too much,”

    just as “if we make it too easy for Congress, they’ll spend too much.”

  5. By 1924 Southern moonshiners were painfully aware of the extent to which Heroin, mainly of German origin, was cutting into the liquor market. After importing the Liberal Party repeal plank and unseating Bert Hoover’s minions, brewers and distillers wasted no time in taking control of the machinery of State wrested from the hands of the Dry KKKleptocracy. When predatory excise taxes cut into sales, they made marijuana replace the Rum Devil as the avatar of demonic possession. Go to Google news archives and look at The Alabama Citizen. The hype hasn’t evolved, it just changed hands.

  6. Fucked up that NH has to advertise their state stores as tax-free because other states’ state liquor stores actually do charge tax. How crazy is that, when the entire proceeds go to the state, that the state adds something onto the price as “tax”?

    1. Actually there’s no sales tax on alcohol in Massachusetts. It was introduced about a decade ago but shortly thereafter repealed through a referendum.

      1. The People’s’ Republic of Taxxachusetts desperately needs a referendum to send all their Political Class to the guillotine. And has for decades.

        1. In most of the quality of life data (level of education, employment, income per capita, etc), Massachusetts perennially ranks in the top percentages.

          Meanwhile the Tennessippi states wallow in the lowest percentages.

          I wonder why….

  7. A slight demurral: even though I agree that the concept of state-owned liquor stores is crappy, New Hampshire has been spiffing them up over the last few years, and if you get to a newer one, the shopping experience is (I think) pretty good.

    (I also agree with Robert, above, who notes the Orwellian shadiness of billing NH stores as “tax free”.)

  8. I think VA has something similar on the books re selling below cost, or it did at one point.

    Around when I turned 21 the bar my friends and I would frequent had quarter beer night. As in, you could get bottles of domestic piss water for 25 cents a piece. This was in roughly 2006. VA ABC eventually caught wind of this and through some mechanism forced the bar to stop holding quarter beer night, and the reason I got from the waitstaff was that it was illegal for them to be selling beer below cost.

    In all fairness quarter beer night was a bad idea, but that’s something the bar owner and patrons could’ve figured out without the state getting involved.

  9. Montana also prohibits the use of coupons and general store discounts, e.g., save $5 on any order over $20, that include alcohol. Special, very expensive, i.e., rationed, “liquor licenses” are required in Montana to sell spirits other than beer and wine. Grocery-type stores are prohibited from owning such licenses. Plus we are blessed with a 2:00am to 8.00am “no-sales” law. So, too bad if you’re up early heading out for a long day of fishing.

  10. Why make it so complicated?

    Bring back the Eighteenth Amendment and be done with all this BS.

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