Move under way to change booze purchases

The Legislature is considering the way alcohol is purchased, a shift that pits grocers against union interests.

Assembly Bill 183 seeks to regulate the sale of alcohol through self-service checkouts. The bill has gained support from diverse groups such as the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Introduced by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, AB 183 could directly change the way that alcohol is purchased at supermarkets.

Self-checkout centers are a fixture in most supermarkets. The Fresh and Easy Neighborhood Market supermarket chain even uses an all self-checkout model. Currently, customers can purchase alcohol through self-checkout systems. When alcohol is scanned, the store employees overseeing the line are alerted to check IDs, in order to prevent underage drinking.

However, supporters of AB 183 say that this safeguard is not enough. They say  teen-agers can easily slip alcohol through the checkout, or scan and pay for another item while taking an alcoholic beverage. The lone clerk on duty might not be able to detect alcohol getting through.

Critics state that evidence points to the current system preventing minors from obtaining alcohol, saying that the major source of underage drinking is adults buying drinks for those below the legal age. That is the position of the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. There is also controversy in the United Food and Commercial Workers Union’s support of AB 183. The union, which represents 250,000 grocery clerks throughout the state, may desire jobs for human – rather than mechanical – check-out personnel and has particularly tried to unionize Fresh and Easy Neighborhood Markets in the past.  

AB 183 passed in the Assembly in May and is currently in committee before going to a vote in the Senate. There have been two attempts to pass similar bills, both by Senator Hector De Le Torre, D-South Gate, in 2007 and 2009. The first did not pass the Senate and the second was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Other potentially addictive products, such as cigarettes, spray paints and certain types of cold medicine, must be bought from a clerk, rather than through self-checkout.

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