An effort to allow liquor sales in grocery stores cleared its first committee Thursday. Lawmakers are one step closer to tearing down the wall that separates liquor stores from other retailers. For many Florida shops, that’s a literal wall, because of a Prohibition-era law that prevents grocers from selling liquor alongside beer and wine.
Lawmakers have pushed similar proposals for years, despite criticism that the so-called ‘Whiskey and Wheaties’ bill would give big box stores an edge over small shops. But proponents say Florida’s system of awarding liquor store licenses through a lottery creates an even playing field. Bill sponsor Senator Anitere Flores (R-Miami) says states without the 'wall' regulation still have competitive markets.
“The facts are that in other states where there is no law, private and small retailers are flourishing and in many, many cases there are a lot more of the smaller retailers than there are the big retailers,” Flores said.
At Thursday's committee meeting, Sarasota Republican Senator Greg Steube was quick to challenge the criticisms of opponents like ABC Fine Wine & Spirits and representatives of smaller independent retailers. Steube sponsored a similar bill in the past, and had pointed and practiced arguments at the ready. Some critics worry underage buyers won't stand out in large supermarkets like they would in a small package store, and argue abuse will increase with access. But Steube argues big box stores are actually more effective at stopping underage sales.
"We did not receive any information that in the thirty other states that do not have a wall, that there is some type of issue with minors either stealing alcohol and abusing alcohol or purchasing alcohol," Steube countered.
"And in fact, under our own statistics by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, the big box stores are actually better in enforcing sales to minors than the independent liquor stores are. So I don't agree that if this bill were to pass that minors' ability to obtain alcohol would change in the state of Florida," he said.
The measure pits major retailers Walmart and Target against Publix, which has taken pains to build separate liquor stores alongside many of its traditional grocery stores. Publix representatives and small independent stores maintain the bill would put them at a competitive disadvantage. But supporters are confident discerning customers will continue to shop at smaller specialty stores that offer individualized service and hard to find products.
After years of failed effort, the measure is moving quickly in Senate. Bill sponsor Anitere Flores is the chamber’s second in command, and supporters are hopeful she'll continue to gin up support for the measure.