Mega booze store out for self

Total Wine’s challenge of state liquor laws could undercut public safety

MASSACHUSETTS LAWS AND regulations governing the sale of alcohol are partially based on the idea of maximizing carefully considered controls and oversight to help reduce negative impacts associated with over-consumption.

Recent reports show the Commonwealth’s regulatory approach works. The Bay State has the nation’s second-best record on limiting driving under the influence (DUI), trailing just New York. According to an open data analysis from BackgroundCheck.org, Massachusetts reported the nation’s lowest death rate for fatalities resulting from DUI. The National Highway Transportation Administration also reports that Massachusetts saw 33 percent fewer deaths from DUI-related accidents in 2015. Public policy solutions aimed at preventing accidents and deaths caused by drunk driving constantly evolve, but the record highlights benefits associated with our regulatory system.

Given this success, why in the world would Total Wine & More, a billion-dollar alcohol retailer, unleash ‘total war’ on the Commonwealth’s alcohol laws marked by a heavy-handed political campaign that blatantly seeks to manipulate the Massachusetts Legislature?

The answer is transparent. The Maryland-based big-box behemoth with a reported $2.5 billion in annual alcohol sales openly seeks to undercut the state’s regulatory system to reap ever-larger profit margins. If they succeed, they will diminish or eliminate controls that protect the public health and safety of families across the state while exporting millions of dollars to their out-of-state company.

It’s hard to believe that only 18 months have passed since Total Wine opened its first store in Massachusetts. During that brief period, America’s largest alcohol retailer sued the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC), launched a faux grassroots campaign, and aggressively lobbied an alcoholic beverage task force that is reviewing the current regulatory system.

The stakes could not be higher as Total Wine battles to weaken rules that promote public health and safety in Massachusetts. Total Wine’s scorched-earth strategy is personally skippered by company founders and co-owners David and Robert Trone. The brothers want to eliminate mandatory minimum prices for alcoholic beverages, gain approval for massive discounts on bulk purchases of alcohol products, and have a free hand to acquire an unlimited number of package store licenses.

It’s important for the public to understand why Massachusetts prohibits underpricing of alcohol products. The regulation helps reduce over-consumption driven by lowball prices. The problem is that below-cost sales fuel Total Wine’s “bait and switch” business model tactics in other states, with customers enticed by dirt cheap prices on a handful of “loss leader” products. The retailer is willing to give away product at below-cost prices (who could say no to that?) because unwitting customers will buy Total Wine’s higher-priced “private label” branded products after the bargains are sold out.

It’s telling that Total Wine claims to be motivated purely by “consumer choice” while conveniently ignoring the fact that cut-rate priced alcohol threatens public health and safety. After all, Total Wine launched a “Consumers First” PR campaign in Massachusetts during May, with the multi-billion dollar company touting itself as a champion of the masses.

The level of irony associated with Total Wine’s deceptive “consumer” campaign tactics is significant because Trones openly use money to buy regulatory changes that help increase their corporate profits. In Maryland, a Total Wine company recently paid $60,000 in fines to the State Prosecutor’s office in response to charges that the company made more than $250,000 in illegal campaign contributions in the state. After a County Councilman in Maryland described Total Wine’s aggressive political contributions as a form of “pay-for-play.” CEO David Trone responded by ridiculing the councilman as “a fool, F-O-O-L” in a local newspaper.

Meet the Author

Frank Anzalotti

Executive director, Massachusetts Package Stores Association
Total Wine’s over-the-top political calculations will surely test Massachusetts’s resolve as a national leader in the good government movement. Our state Legislature is well-known for its understanding of how politics is played, but they’ve never faced “total war” on alcohol regulations like those waged by the Trones.

Frank Anzalotti is the executive director of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association.