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Walmart pushing for Utah to allow higher alcohol content beer in stores

By Dennis Romboy, KSL | Posted - Dec 13th, 2018 @ 11:41am

SALT LAKE CITY — Walmart wants customers to weigh in on an effort to sell higher alcohol content beer — now available only in state-run liquor outlets — in Utah grocery and convenience stores.

The retail giant has posted signs on beer aisles urging shoppers to text a number to learn more about the sale of full-strength beer in stores and how their voices can make a difference.

"Walmart supports efforts to change Utah's beer laws," the sign reads.

Company spokeswoman Tiffany Wilson said Walmart is a strong believer in consumer choice.

"Our goal is really to serve our customers with a selection of beer they want and the convenience of not having to drive to a state-operated liquor store," she said.

The issue could be a hot topic in the upcoming Utah legislative session.

Walmart is part of a group retailers, beer manufacturers and distributors and trade associations calling itself the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition that is lobbying the Legislature to raise the alcohol content by weight from 3.2 percent to 4.8 percent for beer sold in grocery and convenience stores.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said he's getting pressure to change the law and to not change the law. He said he plans to raise the issue with the GOP Senate caucus next week.

"My guess is is if we're going to have to do a fix, this is the year to fix it," he said.

National breweries are phasing out the production of 3.2 beer because all but two states have abandoned it.

Utah and Minnesota are the only states left selling the lower weight beer after laws in Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas have or will change in the next few months.

Only 1.8 percent of all beer brewed in the United States is 3.2 beer, with Oklahoma consuming nearly 60 percent of it, followed by Utah at 29 percent. Utahns represent less than one-half of a percent of beer drinkers in the U.S.

As state laws change, national brewers have to decide whether to continue what would be a specialty item for a shrinking market. Some products from major beer brewers, including Coors and Budweiser, are already disappearing from Utah shelves.

"Walmart is taking a big stand with their campaign," said Kate Bradshaw, coalition director and longtime Utah lobbyist, adding that the chain is the state's largest retailer.

The group is asking for a "modest" increase in the alcohol content, she said. Utah, she said, would still be able to "claim that moral high ground" matching Kansas as having the lowest alcohol content at 4.8 percent.

Retail outlets sell nearly 32.5 million gallons, or 94.2 percent, of all beer sold in the state, compared with 2 million, 5.8 percent, of heavy beer sold at state-run liquor stores.

"If we want to maintain the bulk of our sales in a low-alcohol environment for public safety reasons, for public policy reasons, keeping grocery and convenience stores as a viable market for consumers to make that choice, we think, is important," Bradshaw said.

Stevenson said the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control does not have the space to stock the volume of beer Utahns drink should the law not change, forcing customers to state liquor outlets.

"If it stayed there and they took some of these products off the market, you may not be able to get any at the DABC store," he said. "The state does not have the capacity to handle the kind of increase that would come."

Dennis Romboy

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