The bizarre thing that happens when grocery stores can't sell booze

By Christopher Ingraham analysis

Budweiser cans have been repackaged as 'America' during the northern summer. Photo / AP
Budweiser cans have been repackaged as 'America' during the northern summer. Photo / AP

Nothing drives home the fact that Americans live in a federalist system like moving to a new state and trying to figure out where and when you can buy alcohol.

In some US states, like California, you can buy beer, wine and liquor at the grocery store. In others, you can buy beer at the supermarket but need to make a separate trip to the liquor store to buy wine and hard alcohol. In still others, like Utah, alcoholic beverages can only be purchased at state-run facilities.

A good way to get a bird's-eye-view of the legal booze landscape is to look at what types of alcohol you can and can't buy at your local supermarket.

Let's take a look at the big national trends.

The Southwest is a free-for-all

Perhaps reflecting the region's Wild West roots, you can buy pretty much anything you want, alcohol-wise, in grocery stores running from northern California, through to Nevada, and all the way into Arizona and New Mexico.

So is the Midwest - with one big exception

The situation in most of the Midwest is similar, with beer, wine and liquor available in supermarkets all the way from Indiana to Wyoming. But Minnesota is a notable outlier - no booze in grocery stores in the North Star State.

Supermarkets in Minnesota (and in four other states -- Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Utah) are allowed to sell beer with a low alcohol content - 3.2 per cent alcohol. By contrast, your typical can of Budweiser (America) has 5 per cent alcohol, and Bud Light has 4.2 per cent. Most people don't consider low-alcohol "near-beer" to be quite the same as actual beer, and if you live outside of the five states that sell only low-alcohol beer in grocery stores, you've probably never even come across it.

Sales are tightly regulated in the Mid-Atlantic states

Regulations on supermarket sales are generally very strict from southern New England through Maryland. There are some odd exceptions: in New Jersey, each grocery store chain is allowed a total of two liquor licenses to sell alcohol. Given that the bigger grocery chains have dozens of locations in the state, this means that supermarket sales are the exception rather than the rule.

Maryland also has a weird situation where counties largely control the administration of liquor laws. There are several supermarkets scattered throughout the state that allow liquor sales but again, these are the exception rather than the rule.

The South is fairly consistent

From Virginia through to Florida, supermarket sales are pretty straightforward: beer and wine are okay, hard alcohol is not.

This patchwork of laws is largely a result of the repeal of federal prohibition, which took federal oversight out of the picture for the most part, and left regulation up to individual states. Even though federal prohibition was repealed in 1933, it remained in effect in some states for decades. Kansas remained dry until 1948. Mississippi was the longest holdout, keeping alcohol sales outlawed until 1966.

When states made alcohol sales legal again, they charted their own courses, resulting in the patchwork of laws you see today. And updating alcohol laws remains a perennial topic of legislation in the nation's statehouses. Minnesota recently debated whether to allow liquor stores to open on Sunday.

Colorado legislators recently approved an almost comically complicated 20-year process to allow liquor sales in grocery stores, but the governor isn't sure if he's going to sign it.

Efforts to oppose broadening access to alcohol via supermarket sales are often grounded in public health arguments. A Centres for Disease Control and Prevention task force on alcohol outlets found "sufficient evidence of a positive association between outlet density and excessive alcohol consumption and related harms."

In other words, more liquor stores, more drinking problems. The National Alcohol Beverage Control Association cites these findings as a potential drawback of allowing supermarket alcohol sales.

But paradoxically, allowing supermarket alcohol sales may actually decrease the density of liquor stores in a given geographic area. Supermarket sales often face fierce opposition from mum-and-dad liquor store owners, who argue that they wouldn't be able to compete with large chains and would be driven out of business. Net result? If one supermarket drives, say, three liquor stores out of business, that would mean fewer places to buy alcohol.

A back-of-the-envelope analysis of the state-level data adds some credence to the idea. Researchers recently tallied up the cost to society of excessive drinking - the kind of irresponsible drinking that leads to crime, health problems and early mortality.

If you look at the per-capita cost of excessive drinking in each state, and group the states by how they handle supermarket sales, an interesting fact emerges: States that do not allow supermarket sales actually have a higher average per-capita cost of heavy drinking than other states with more liberal policies.

Among states that don't allow supermarket alcohol sales, the average per-capita cost of heavy drinking is US$827 per resident per year. Among states that allow beer only the cost is US$774, states that allow beer and wine see a cost of US$787, and states permitting sales of all types of alcohol see an average cost to society of US$805 per capita.

Granted, the differences here aren't huge, and there are likely any number of other factors affecting these figures that I'm not controlling for. Still, numbers like these may allay the fears of people concerned that allowing supermarket alcohol sales will open the floodgates to bad drinking habits.

At the state level, at least, supermarket sales don't have seem to have much influence on the societal costs of heavy drinking at all.

- Washington Post

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