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A high cost battle

Voters will determine today if state supermarkets will be able to sell wine

Massachusetts voters will be asked today to play referee in a high cost battle for market share between supermarkets and package stores. Ballot Question 1, being pushed by the state's supermarkets, would allow cities and towns, at their discretion, to issue a new breed of liquor license called a wine-at-food-store license.

Current state law caps the number of liquor licenses any corporate entity can hold at three. Supermarkets want more, and after failing to get relief on Beacon Hill they are taking their case to the voters in the form of a ballot question.

The two sides have spent heavily on the campaign, which recent polls have indicated is very close. As of Nov. 1, at least $9.3 million had been spent on the campaign, exceeding the earlier $9.1 million record for a ballot question that was set in 1988 when voters overwhelmingly rejected a measure that would have effectively shut down the state's nuclear power plants.

In their campaign, the supermarkets have argued that allowing them to sell wine at more of their stores would bring down prices and offer consumers the convenience of picking up a bottle of wine while shopping for food, eliminating a second stop at a package store.

Package stores have pounded away at public safety issues and the possibility that many of the wine-at-food-store licenses would end up with convenience stores and gas station minimarts who carry "fresh or processed meat, poultry, dairy products, eggs, fresh fruits and produce, baked goods and baking ingredients, canned goods, and dessert items."

In an ad that the Vote No forces have aired over and over again in the final week of the campaign, the acting police chief in Somerville, Robert Bradley cq, warned that passage of Question 1 would double the number of liquor licenses in Massachusetts and increase the number in Somerville from 26 to 46, with many being held by convenience stores and gas station minimarts.

In fact, the number of licenses would be determined by local licensing officials. The chairman of the Boston Licensing Commission, Daniel Pokaski cq, says he doesn't think his board would approve any wine-at-food-store licenses for convenience stores or gas stations.

CVS Corp. has said it doesn't think its stores would qualify for a license. Walgreens officials have said they have no interest in obtaining wine licenses for their stores, as liquor sales are "very low margin and require a lot of management attention."

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