© 2022 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Kansas Grocery, Convenience Store Owners Say They Can Sell Liquor Safely

Andy Marso
Heartland Health Monitor

Retired grocery store executive David Dillon had a simple answer Wednesday to concerns that allowing stores like his to sell full-strength liquor would increase underage drinking.

“Hogwash,” Dillon said.

Dillon is the former chief executive of Kroger, owner of the Dillons franchise of Kansas grocery stores and one of the nation’s largest retailers.

He told the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee that Kroger’s Kansas stores already safely sell other restricted products like pharmaceuticals, tobacco and low-strength beer.

“We have proven ourselves to be a responsible citizen of the state,” Dillon said, “and in all the other 25 states where Kroger does business and has these products in the store, we have a similarly strong track record.”

Dillon was among those who testified for House Bill 2200, legislation that would allow full-strength beer, wine and liquor sales in grocery and convenience stores starting in 2018.

Opponents are scheduled to testify Thursday and neutral testimony is set for Friday. Rep. Mark Hutton, a Republican from Wichita who chairs the committee, said he expects the committee to debate and possibly vote on the bill late next week.

Legislators have unsuccessfully introduced similar bills in each of the last few sessions. This year’s bill attempts to quell opposition from liquor store owners by capping the number of full-liquor Class B licenses statewide and allowing liquor store owners to sell their licenses to grocers or convenience stores within the same county. Grocery and convenience stores would be able to access an uncapped number of Class A licenses limited to full-strength beer sales.

A study released last year by the Kansas Health Institute, found that expanding liquor licenses in the state has the potential to increase underage drinking http://www.khi.org/news/article/potential-health-effects-expanding-liquor-licenses, unless the expansion is accompanied by other regulatory controls. Other public health impacts could include an increase in traffic fatalities and sexually transmitted diseases, according to the study.

Much of the proponent testimony Wednesday centered on consumer convenience and the ideals of free market competition.  

But consumers who had lived in other states that allow liquor sales in grocery stores testified that they saw no negative effects.

Aaron Rosenow, owner of Vern’s Retail Liquor and leader of a group of Kansas liquor store owners who oppose the bill, said after the hearing that he has seen evidence to the contrary.

Rosenow pointed to Washington state, which two years ago opened alcohol sales to private retailers, including supermarkets, after previously allowing them only at state-controlled liquor stores.

“Now they have the highest theft of alcohol they’ve ever seen,” Rosenow said. “It’s exponential numbers. Thirty, forty thousand dollars one guy got away with per month, stealing high-end booze and selling it at pure profit.”

The bill being considered in the Kansas House also would lower the age at which a store employee could sell alcohol from 21 to 18, but only if the employee is supervised by another employee who is 21 or older.

Rep. Rick Billinger, a Republican from Goodland, asked Dillon if that has caused problems in other states.

“You ever have any fines for these 18-year-olds selling alcohol to their friends who are 18?” Billinger said.

“We’ve had a few,” Dillon said.

Dillon said the company had one such instance last year in Kansas, where its stores can only sell beer up to 3.2 percent alcohol content. Dillon said corporate training has minimized such infractions.

“We’re actually very proud of our record, and we push ourselves hard,” Dillon said.

Tom Palace, who testified for the bill on behalf of convenience store owners, said those stores also already safely sell age-restricted products like lottery tickets and cigarettes.

“Obviously compliance is an important issue for us, and we take precautions,” Palace said.

Palace said technology allows convenience store owners to take “human error” out of the equation when it comes to checking consumers’ identification cards. Software now allows clerks to punch in a birthdate and immediately be told whether the consumer is of age.

Rosenow said that system wouldn’t be sufficient to stop an 18-year-old convenience store clerk from selling a bottle of vodka to an underage friend for a party.

“If a 21-year-old is on the floor in the back room doing something and his friend comes up and he’s the only one at a gas station that sells hard liquor or hard beer, it’s not going to take that long to enter in a fake birthdate to skirt their system of controlling regulation of the age of who buys a product,” Rosenow said.

Editor's note:  The Kansas Health Institute is the parent organization of the editorially independent KHI News Service.

Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with essential news and information.
Your donation today keeps local journalism strong.