What Happens When A State Bans Alcohol at Supermarkets?

By May Wilkerson 05/18/16

A recent analysis found that strict alcohol laws don't necessarily translate to a lower cost to society.

liquor store

Moving to a new state, if you’re a drinker, means adapting to a new set of laws about where you can and can’t buy booze. In California, for example, you can buy any kind of alcoholic beverage at the grocery store. In New York, you can buy beer and wine at the grocery store but have to go to a liquor store for the hard stuff. And in some states, like Utah, you need to go to special state-run facilities for all your drinking needs.

To visualize the differences, the Washington Post put together a map which lays out the laws dictating where you can buy alcohol in each state, based on information from the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association (NABCA) and other resources.

As you can see, there are some geographic trends. For example, states in the southwest, from California to New Mexico, are more of a free-for-all, with alcohol sales allowed at grocery stores. Whereas a pocket of states in the conservative midwest, and most of New England, are more strict.

The reason that laws regarding alcohol sales are so uneven across the country is largely because when alcohol prohibition was repealed, regulation was left up to individual states. And for some states, it took decades before prohibition was fully repealed, like Kansas, which remained dry until 1948, and Mississippi, which banned alcohol sales until 1966.

And updating liquor laws is complicated. For example, in Colorado, state legislators recently approved a bill to allow liquor sales in grocery stores that took nearly 20 years to complete. And the governor remains on the fence about whether he’ll sign it.

Arguments against allowing alcohol sales at supermarkets are often rooted in concerns about public health. There is evidence that greater access to alcohol can increase alcohol consumption and related harms, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention task force found.

The National Alcohol Beverage Control Association cites these findings as a potential downside to allowing supermarkets to sell booze.

But in reality, allowing alcohol to be sold at supermarkets might actually decrease the density of liquor stores in a given geographic area, because when grocery stores sell alcohol, it often puts local liquor stores out of business. This could help explain why states that do not allow alcohol supermarket sales actually seem to have a higher average per-capita cost of heavy drinking than states with more liberal policies, according to recent research which looked at the financial, public health and life costs of excessive drinking (including crime, health problems and early death.)

In states that don't allow booze sales at supermarkets, the average per-capita cost of heavy drinking is $827 per resident per year. In states that allow beer only, the cost is $774; in states that allow beer and wine, the cost is $787. Whereas in states permitting sales of all types of alcohol, the average cost to society is $805 per capita. Researchers point out that there may be other factors at play here. But it certainly calls into question whether prohibiting booze at supermarkets is helping, or harming, the residents of a state.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.