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Parties battle over advancing alcohol measure


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Two distinct groups of alcohol retailers and distributors are fighting over Rep. Robert Cornejo’s bill to allow retailers that sell alcohol, including grocery stores, bars and restaurants and liquor stores to advertise the price of their products.

Cornejo’s bill was voted out of the House Legislative Oversight Committee Monday and now rests on the House Calendar for Perfection.

Those same stores can not advertise deals, like coupons or rebates on intoxicating beverages outside of the store.

Rep. Robert Cornejo
Rep. Robert Cornejo

David Overfelt, the president of the Missouri Retailers Association, said the bill would give greater commercial freedom to advertise about discounts.

“We’re talking about some common sense changes that basically would just allow retailers to advertise like they normally do with other products and change liquor to loyalty programs and loyalty cards,” he said.

The issue has been a focus for the retailers for some time. Overfelt added his organization has worked on this issue for over a decade, and after a federal appeals court ruling in January returned a major court case to the state of Missouri, supporters of the legislation are confident now is the time to see action on the issue.

The case, which was dismissed by a state court, was appealed by the Missouri Broadcasters Association, a sports bar and restaurant, and Zimmer Radio Group. The Missouri Press Association and Missouri Broadcasters Association have supported the bill on First Amendment grounds, saying it makes no sense why these places of business can advertise in their own stores and on social media, but not on television, radio or in newspapers.

The defendants voiced concerns that further advertisement of intoxicating drinks went against a state interest of public health and safety by increasing demand for liquor. However, the court found definitively that nothing about the specificity of advertising alcohol necessarily increased demand generic promotions of “happy hours” or “ladies’ nights” could also lead to that demand.

“As plaintiffs pled in their amended complaint, this conceivably is compelling speech and association in violation of the First Amendment,” Chief Judge William Riley wrote in the unanimous 3-0 decision.

“I think the court is very clear there’s no logical reason you can advertise however you want in your store and you can’t buy a print ad or a radio ad,” Overfelt said.

While that case is now ongoing, Cornejo’s bill is now a considerable focus of supporters. The bill was a main focus of the Missouri Grocers Association during their legislative day Tuesday. Mark Gordon, the president of the Missouri Broadcasters Association, said he was optimistic about the bill’s future, noting that dealing with the law so far has been “frustrating and exasperating.”

“We would love for the bill to pass so it takes a portion of our challenges away,” he said. “Our members are not allowed to advertise a price discount and yet they’re being advertised on location and on social media.”

Meanwhile, opponents of the legislation believe those deals offered by retailers could hurt smaller retailers. They argue larger retailers can afford to sell at a loss and advertise discounts and deals that undercut small retailers. Supporters of the bill believe that belief limits competition.

Ron Leone, the executive director of the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, frames the argument as one between large big box companies – namely Total Wine and More, a large Maryland-based chain – against “mom and pop” liquor stores. That “mom and pop” quality comes from fact that most convenience stores in Missouri operate under a franchise model similar to fast-food restaurants. So, the owners of a convenience store in Independence or Lebanon may only operate one or a handful of those shops in an area.

Leone also noted, even though many of the businesses he represented sold alcoholic beverages, their age-restricted quality proves the business should continue to have strict discerning regulation.

“Ultimately, when it comes to alcohol, we believe the public policy surrounding the retail sale of alcohol is very different than the public policy surrounding the retail sale of other retail products such as the sale of shoes or laptops or diet soda,” Leone said. “Alcohol is unique and deserves to be highly regulated.”