State Scrutiny of Alcohol Purchases

Ali Meyer:  A bill to prevent alcohol sales to underage youth at grocery store self service checkout stands is making its way through the legislative committee process. Democrat Assemblywoman Fiona Ma of San Francisco, the bill’s author, says she deems this as a “public safety” issue.

At a Governmental Organization Committee hearing on Tuesday, proponents of AB 183 claimed that self service checkouts contribute to underage drinking, while opponents of the bill point out that self-service checkout machines do not.

The bill’s opponents claimed that supporters’ justified the bill using underage drinking statistics.  But during the hearing, Senator Roderick Wright (D-Los Angeles) questioned if the statistics pertained to the issue at all. “What does that have to do with the bill at all?” Wright asked the representative from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who had just shared a litany of underage drinking tragedies. “What evidence do you have that self-checkouts contribute to underage drinking?” Wright pressed.

The MADD representative said he’d have to defer to another witness for the answer.

Reverend John Hughes of the Methodist Ministry group, called the self check outs a “virtual vending machine,” and expressed his support for the bill.

One claim by supporters was that underage drinkers will go through the check out stand with a six pack of soda and then replace the soda with a six pack of beer as they bag their purchases.

Opponent National Cash Register Corporation, the maker of self check out machines, says this is not valid.  According to NCR, “There are weight differences and they can be detected at the machine.”

Many at the hearing asked if self check out machines are not specifically contributing to underage alcohol sales, why proponents of the bill are urging its passage?

“I don’t know what the big deal is,” said a representative from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. He explained that Costco clerks are required by law to not only check the ID of people that might be underage, but to make sure that every person who buys alcohol is not intoxicated. “If they fail to do this they get fired,” he repeated emphatically.

The California Retailers Association also opposed Ma’s bill, and stated that, “Unfortunately youth are getting access to alcohol, but they aren’t getting it from self checkouts. It’s just not true.”

One of the strong arguments against the bill was the attempt by government to pass another business regulation where one is not warranted.  Opponents insisted that self checkout stands do not actually contribute to underage drinking, but even if they did, the issues should be solved by the businesses rather than legislators.

“It’s really a labor issue, a training issue… perhaps there are additional tensions going on with clerks having a number of machines that they have to oversee,” said Paul Gladfelty, representing NCR. “That may be a valid issue, but its not a valid issue for the legislature.”

Wright said the committee would take the bill up again in two weeks after amending some of the bill’s language  – particularly how online sales were addressed.

JUNE 17, 2011

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