Alcohol makers and religious groups spar over tastings, promotions

The alcohol industry is seeking to loosen restrictions around free tastings and other promotions. Industry critics argue that their ultimate goal isn't just to promote their wares in upscale bars and liquor stores but in grocery stores and family restaurants.

While there are several alcohol-related bills pending in the legislature, much of the focus is on a pair of bills by Assemblyman George Plescia, R-San Diego. His AB 2613 would allow makers of distilled spirits-i.e. liquor-to offer tastings similar to those done by beer and wine makers across a range of retail environments. AB 2294 would allows alcohol makers or distillers to give signs, including televisions, to establishments that sell alcohol, for promotional purposes.

According to amendments added in order to get the bill through the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee, AB 2613 would limit these tastings to stores of at least 25,000 square feet that make at least 70 percent of their revenue from alcohol sales.

Adam Smith, a spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, said the industry is asking for the ability to promote their products in reputable establishments that are already engaged mainly in selling alcohol. These restrictions, he said, would keep tastings out of grocery stores and corner liquor stores. 

"Our focus is the more upscale, the BevMos, the Liquor Barns, the wine and spirit wholesalers," Smith said.

The Reverend James Butler, executive director of the California Council on Alcohol Problems, said that this amendment was only added recently. He claimed that the industry's real goal was to move free tastings, now only at wineries, into more general, retail settings.

"It takes the alcohol from a more secluded, intentional setting and intrudes on a family setting, the local grocery store," Butler said. "Once it's in the retail store in any way, the'll say ‘Let's change this number of that number,' because that is the original intent of the sponsor of the bill."

Smith took issue with this contention, saying that distillers specifically want to be in high-end, adult only retail stores: "The argument that this is a Trojan horse to get free booze out on the streets and in every corner liquor store is not accurate."

AB 2613 passed out of the Assembly GO on April 16 with nine yes votes, five abstentions, and a no from chair Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont. Smith said that his organization was negotiating with Torrico's office over further amendments. Smith said some of the numbers currently in the bill could change.

"He was concerned about limiting these to the proper places," Smith said. He added: "Were trying to keep the spirit of those amends alive, but maybe not stick to the amendments added in the Governmental Organization Committee."

AB 2613 now heads to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. A similar bill, AB 2293 from Assemblyman Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, is also in Appropriations. As currently drafted, this is more of an intent bill.

Meanwhile, AB 2294 now sits on the Appropriations suspense file. Butler, an ordained United Methodist minister who describes his organization as "faith-based," said he had particular concerns about this bill. It would allow a vendor or distributor to provide a plasma screen TV that would play no more than 50 percent alcohol promotions, intermixed with other programming. As currently written Butler claimed, these set could move out of bars and liquor stores into restaurants with children present.

"These will not be limited to bars," Butler said. "These will be anyplace that has alcohol sales. This is another intrusion of the alcohol industry into the public sector."

Plescia's office did not comment as of press time. Secretary of State records showed that in the 2006 election cycle, he took $1,500 from the Distilled Spirits Council and nearly $25,000 from other brewers, wine makers and alcohol industry trade groups.

Butler said that his group has been lobbying in favor bills calling for ignition locks on cars of convicted drunken drivers and for AB 346, the "alco-pop" labeling bill from Assemblyman Jim Beall, D-San Jose.

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