TALLAHASSEE — The walls between whiskey and Wheaties aren’t tumbling any time soon.
Admitting he didn’t have the votes, Sen. Bill Galvano on Thursday withdrew from consideration his bill (SB 804) repealing the requirement for retailers – including supermarkets, drugstores and Walmart – to sell hard liquor separately from groceries.
Galvano, R-Bradenton, pulled the measure during the Senate Regulated Industries hearing.
Afterward, he said he ran up against intense lobbying against the bill by chains like ABC Fine Wine and Spirits and by convenience-store interests.
Galvano also noted that a House companion (HB 877) has gotten no traction.
Thirty-four states now allow retail liquor sales without a separation requirement. Florida’s separation law was enacted in 1935, after the repeal of Prohibition but before the modern retail age, making it “archaic,” Galvano said.
Now, supermarkets can sell beer and wine in their main store but must operate a separate space to sell distilled spirits like vodka and gin.
Being required to have a separate store “makes it just a little more difficult to sell distilled spirits, (and) that’s a competitive advantage to those who don’t have a barrier,” he said. “It’s a zero sum game and the market is going to give and take.”
The head of ABC, the alcoholic-beverage powerhouse in Florida, says that’s not the case.
“It’s not an economic issue; it’s an issue of access,” said Charles Bailes, the liquor chain’s chief executive.
Putting liquor in supermarkets and general retail stores puts it that much closer to teens, he said, who would stick out in a liquor store but would blend in at a Walmart.
Bailes mentioned the experience of Washington state, which passed a similar measure.
“Kids aren’t buying liquor,” he said. “The best checkout system in the world isn’t going to keep liquor out of the hands of kids. They’re stealing it and even drinking it in the store.”
Wesley Sapp, a Florida State freshman from Ocala, was ready to speak against the bill on behalf of Florida Students Against Drunk Driving.
“As an underaged individual, what is more inviting: A traditional liquor store, which is kind of intimidating, or stores that are family-oriented?” he said.
Stores like Walmart and supermarkets are places “where I could go in to buy a shirt or a bag of chips and no one would even think twice about me being there,” Sapp added.
Walmart and Target had joined forces under the public-relations banner of “Floridians for Fair Business Practices.”
Their spokeswoman, Christina Johnson, has said liquor stores are concerned about losing profits but are hiding behind claims that minors will have greater access to alcohol.
In California, which removed its separate-store requirement, reports of illegal sales of liquor to minors have gone down, she said.
The bill would have reduced business costs and created more convenience for consumers, proponents say.
Bailes said he does not understand the convenience argument.
“I don’t think it’s a huge inconvenience for someone to walk 10 or 20 feet outside a door to a controlled space to buy spirits,” he said. “I think that’s reasonable.”