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Updated Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 08:16 PM

Legislature considers new alcohol regulations

By Amelia Dickson
Seattle Times staff reporter

State lawmakers are considering legislation to restrict the sale of liquor at self-service checkout lines, where store clerks say some minors have been trying to purchase or steal alcohol.

The problem cropped up after voters agreed a year ago to privatize liquor sales in Washington state, allowing groceries and other retail stores to sell spirits.

There are currently no state laws requiring self-checkout machines to lock up and prompt checker assistance when alcoholic items are scanned.

Under House Bill 1009, retailers would be prohibited from selling alcohol through self-checkout stands that enable a customer to make retail purchases with limited or no assistance from checkers or store employees.

But the bill’s language doesn’t specify whether self-checkout machines would be required to lock and trigger checker assistance when alcohol is scanned or whether customers purchasing alcohol would have to go through staffed checkout stands.

Bill sponsor Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, wrote the legislation in response to complaints from the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 367, the union representing food workers in the South Puget Sound area.

Local 367 lobbyist Sharon Ness said the issue goes beyond public safety and the well-being of minors; it’s a labor issue. Store clerks can be held responsible for minors purchasing alcohol.

“It’s a criminal offense for our members if a minor gets out (of the store) with alcohol,” Ness said. “They could be fired, fined or face jail time.”

Ness said self-checkout stands have recently become a target for underage drinkers, with online tutorials popping up on sites such as Yahoo! Answers sharing strategies for smuggling alcohol out of stores undetected.

One site suggests scanning bottles of water but bagging liquor; others suggest placing alcoholic items in other packages like a doughnut box before scanning it. Employees running self-checkout stands are often responsible for supervising multiple machines, so they don’t notice when machines or merchandise are tampered with, Ness said.

California supermarkets had similar problems with self-checkout machines, and last year, lawmakers passed a law banning liquor sales through the machines. The law went into effect this January.

Some members of the Government Accountability & Oversight Committee, the House committee reviewing the bill, expressed doubts about the seriousness of the problem because most stores already require checker verification when alcohol is scanned.

Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane, said he’s never purchased alcohol from a self-checkout stand without the checker punching in a certain code. He wondered whether any stores actually allow customers to purchase alcohol unhindered.

But Hunt said he’s visited several grocery stores in the Olympia area where he was able to purchase alcohol through self-checkout without checker assistance. In one case, the checker was busy with another malfunctioning machine when he made his purchase. In another store, the checker was busy with other customers and didn’t pay attention to his purchase.

Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, questioned why Hunt chose to file the legislation now, given that wine and beer have been purchased through self-checkout since the machines became common 10 years ago. Hunt said the temptation to steal liquor has increased greatly since Initiative 1183 went into effect.

“It’s a lot more attractive to steal a $25 bottle of liquor from the grocery store than beer or wine,” Hunt said. “Also, there weren’t any self-checkout stands at the state liquor stores, so it was a lot harder to steal.”

Lobbyist Holly Chisa of the Northwest Grocery Association said her group would oppose legislation requiring all customers purchasing alcohol go through a staffed checkout stand because the transition could be confusing to customers.

But she said the association would support a requirement that all self-checkout stands require checker verification when alcohol is purchased. Hunt disagreed, saying customers would adapt to change in society’s best interests.

“It was confusing when people walked up and saw their state liquor stores closed last summer, but they adjusted just fine,” Hunt said.

Also under consideration is House Bill 1001, which would allow theaters to sell beer and wine. Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, sponsor of the bill, said the legislation would allow smaller theaters to compete with larger chains.

Under current law, only theaters that provide restaurant services are allowed to serve alcohol. Most older, historic theaters aren’t equipped to serve food.

“This would help revitalize our downtown areas,” Moeller said. “These historic theaters can be important to our communities.”

Several community members spoke in favor of the legislation. Dan Wyatt Jr., owner of Kiggins Theatre in downtown Vancouver, said he and other small-theater owners are facing economic challenges, such as upgrading to new technology. Serving alcohol allows small theaters to become more economically viable.

Members of the Washington Association for Substance Abuse & Violence Prevention attended the hearing and spoke against the bill.

Spokesman Seth Dawson said allowing alcohol to be served in theaters would send the wrong message to minors and “normalize the use of alcohol.”

Rick Garza, deputy director of the state Liquor Control Board, said it might be difficult to keep alcohol out of the hands of minors in a darkened theater.

Amelia Dickson: 360-236-8266 or adickson@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter: @ameliadickson


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