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Keep beer in beer stores

May 19, 2008

Selling it in groceries, convenience stores would send wrong message.

By David Shipula

As a guy who's spent his entire working life running a beer distributorship, I often ask my customers, "What's good about selling beer in convenience stores?"

The answer runs something like this: "It's convenient. You can stop for gas, and get beer and cigarettes at the same time."

Now, I can't be the only person who sees a problem with making it easy to buy beer and gasoline in one convenient location. And even though I live in Luzerne County, I know that people in Philadelphia's neighborhoods already are troubled by "convenience stores" that are more than a little careless about checking IDs for underage drinking and that all too often become nuisances in otherwise peaceful residential neighborhoods.

What I don't understand is why it's not plain to everyone that it's already pretty darn convenient to buy a beer - or six or 12 or 24 - in Pennsylvania if you want to do so.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 2,400 gas stations in Pennsylvania, about 2,700 supermarkets, and 2,900 drugstores. Compare that with the 1,300 beer distributorships where Pennsylvanians can buy beer by the case and 500 "deli" licenses that allow people to buy up to two six-packs to go. Several thousand of the state's 12,000 bars and restaurants can, and do, sell beer to take out. If there is power in numbers, that's proof that we have convenience of access to beer.

This is the system set up by law, and changing the law requires an act of the General Assembly. That's the point that the Malt Beverage Distributors Association, of which I am the Pennsylvania president, seeks to uphold in the state Supreme Court in its suit against the Sheetz gasoline stores. It's also the point that we're making in our appeal of restaurant licenses granted to Wegmans supermarkets.

If there were a true groundswell of opinion favoring free and easy access to beer, don't you think the legislature would have changed the law by now? In fact, public opinion is split - although polls show that people are slightly more in favor of limiting access to beer than opening the floodgates.

The reasons are simple: Most people think that waving ice-cold six-packs in front of motorists is a bad idea. They also want the supermarket shopping experience to remain something the entire family can enjoy without giving children - from toddlers to teenagers - the idea that beer is as harmless as, say, a calorie-laden, high-fructose corn syrup-laced soft drink.

Why has the Malt Beverage Distributors Association taken up the fight to insist that everyone play by the same rules, the laws enacted by the General Assembly? Because they are the same rules that were applied to us when we bought our state licenses and undertook the privilege of selling beer in Pennsylvania.

It's a question of fair play.

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