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Getting to the bottom line on grocery stores' bid to sell wine

Question 1 is the outgrowth of an industry turf battle, but it has become a big-time consumer issue. Here are some facts for voters trying to sift through the rhetoric.

Q. What would Question 1 do?

A. It would create a new category of liquor license called a wine-at-food-store license. Every community could issue a minimum of five of these licenses, and communities with more than 5,000 residents could issue one additional license for every additional 5,000 residents. Boston could issue 121 licenses, Cambridge 25, Newton 21, and Quincy 22. The total number of wine-at-food-store licenses that could be issued statewide is 2,879.

Q. Why do we need to change the law? Aren't there lots of places to buy wine?

A. Supermarkets say the competition would bring prices down and offer one-stop shopping for food and wine. Package stores say there's enough competition now to keep prices down, and shoppers will still have to visit one of their stores to pick up beer or spirits.

Q. What are the arguments against Question 1?

A. Opponents of the ballot question say it would increase underage drinking and drunken driving and run many local package stores out of business. "Grocery stores have thousands of products on which to make a profit," said Kathie O'Dwyer , the owner of Main Street Liquors in Maynard. "We have three: beer, liquor, and wine. And these huge corporations want one-third of our business."

Q. What about the public safety issues?

A. The impact, if any, is unclear. The opponents of the ballot question are running ads saying that drunken driving fatalities in the 34 states that allow the sale of wine in food stores are much higher than in Massachusetts. That's true, but other states that prohibit wine sales in food stores have even higher fatality rates than the 34 that allow wine sales. Mothers Against Drunk Driving says Massachusetts' lower fatality rate is probably due to other factors.

Q. Don't police chiefs say Question 1 is a bad idea?

A. Yes, more than 30 have come out against the ballot question. They are concerned the expansion of wine sales could overwhelm their liquor enforcement efforts. Supermarkets point out that the proposed law provides some additional funding by allowing local officials to set the fee for a wine license.

Q. Who would qualify for a license?

A. Any store carrying "fresh or processed meat, poultry, dairy products, eggs, fresh fruit and produce, baked goods and baking ingredients, canned goods, and dessert items."

Q. How many of these licenses will get issued?

A. Opponents of Question 1 often say all 2,879 licenses would be issued, while supporters estimate only about 1,000. The truth is no one knows. The proposed law says the wine licenses "may be issued at the discretion of local licensing authorities," so local officials will decide how many are issued.

Q. Would a convenience store or a gas station qualify for one of these licenses?

A. Thomas R. Kiley , the attorney who drafted the proposed law, says convenience stores and gas stations would be eligible to apply for a wine-at-food-store license as long as they meet all food and licensing requirements.

Q. Is it a good idea to let convenience stores and gas stations sell wine?

A. Some gas stations and convenience stores already sell liquor under the state's existing licensing laws, but opponents of the ballot question say allowing others to sell wine is a terrible idea. The chairman of the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, Eddie J. Jenkins , recently announced his opposition to the ballot question, in part because he said convenience stores and gas stations would snap up wine licenses and often not adhere to liquor regulations.

Q. Are convenience stores and gas stations interested in selling wine?

A. A CVS spokesman said the chain's stores would not meet the definition of a food store contained in the proposed law. Walgreens spokesman Michael Polzin said he doubted the company would be interested in selling wine in Massachusetts. He said the chain has reduced the number of stores selling liquor nationally from more than 1,000 to 300, primarily because liquor sales are "very low margin and require a lot of management attention." A spokesman for Hess Corp. was noncommittal, saying the gas station chain would review the statute if it passes.

Q. Would cities and towns issue wine licenses to convenience stores and gas stations?

A. They could, but some local officials say they wouldn't do it. Daniel Pokaski , chairman of the Boston Licensing Board, says he doesn't think the board would approve any wine-at-food-store licenses for convenience stores or gas stations. The Cambridge License Commission says it would rule on a case-by-case basis if the question passes. Any applicant could challenge a licensing board's rejection in court, but Pokaski said board decisions are rarely overturned. "The standard is public need," Pokaski said. "It really is whatever the public board decides it is."

Q. What would happen in dry towns?

A. Licensing experts say the towns couldn't reject an applicant for a wine-at-food-store license out of hand. A dry town presumably would take a vote on whether to issue the licenses.

Q. Don't some food stores already sell liquor?

A. Yes. But under current law, an individual or a company can hold only three liquor licenses statewide. Supermarkets want more. Their ads claim liquor stores have a virtual monopoly here in Massachusetts, but the three-store limit prevents anyone from gaining market control.

Q. What would happen to alcohol licenses if Question 1 passes?

A. Nothing. The wine licenses would be in addition to existing licenses.

Q. Who's opposing Question 1?

A. Package stores, liquor wholesalers, some law enforcement officials, and beer distributors.

Q. Why are beer distributors opposed to a question dealing with wine licenses?

A. They declined to comment, referring questions to a spokesman for the Vote No group. "This is not just about wine," said Doug Bailey , the spokesman. "While this particular proposal deals only with wine, it is the first salvo in an assault on our alcohol regulation laws. Beer distributors feel they have to draw the line here or next they'll be trying to keep beer out of grocery stores when the stores are already selling wine."

Bruce Mohl can be reached at

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