Indiana grocery stores to courts: We want to sell cold beer

Package stores in Indiana are allowed to sell cold beer, but grocery and convenience stores are not. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post) Package stores in Indiana are allowed to sell cold beer, but grocery and convenience stores are not. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

Leaders of Indiana’s multi-billion-dollar grocery and convenience store industry are amplifying a legal battle against a decades-old state law that bans them from selling cold beer.

Lobbyists have fought the law for nearly 80 years, defeated by the state’s small-but-powerful package store lobby. Package store owners argue that repealing the law will make it easier for minors to purchase alcohol because grocery clerks don’t have state liquor licenses.

A U.S. District judge upheld the law last month, arguing that Indiana has “a legitimate interest in curbing the sale of immediately consumable beer to minors.” But the Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association has vowed to fight the ruling, filing an appeal to a federal court Tuesday. The organization is also pressing ahead with another lawsuit at the state level.

Scot Imus, the group’s executive director, said Indiana’s alcohol laws “lack common sense.”

“It is clear that the monopoly liquor stores have limits consumer choice and hurts the growth of our state economy,” he said in a statement.

As the legal fight heated up last year, the money poured in. The Indiana Association of Beverage Retailers, which represents package stores, spent about $23,975 in 2013 – not including personal campaign donations. Big Red, the state’s largest liquor store chain, spent $27,450, according to The IndyStar.

The amount of cash spent to strike down the law has been far less: The Indiana Retailers Political Action Committee and the Indiana Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Political spent a combined $12,736 in 2013, though it does not include individuals’ donations.

Indiana’s restrictions are remnants of its post-Prohibition “blue laws,” which also ban retail liquor sales on Sundays. Lawmakers have attempted to reverse the policies every year since 2007, and will likely raise legislation in 2015 as well.

Nationwide, the fight to repeal cold beer bans has mostly taken place in localities. Oxford, a town in Mississippi with about 20,000 people, won the battle to buy cold beer last August.

While lawmakers have loosened blue laws across the country, 12 states continue to ban Sunday liquor sales and 38 states have some type of alcohol restriction, according to an organization called Prohibition Repeal.

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Hunter Schwarz · July 16, 2014