Kansas bill would kill 3.2 beer

TOPEKA | Kansas lawmakers could consider a bill this legislative session that would allow supermarkets and convenience stores in the state to sell full-strength beer.

Currently, only liquor stores can sell regular packaged beer while other retailers are limited to stocking cereal-malt beverages, sometimes called "weak" or "3.2" beer. Advocates say the market for these products, first introduced in 1937, largely disappeared when the state raised the minimum drinking age to 21 in 1985.

"Our industry is out to recapture the share of the market we lost," said Bob Alderson, a Topeka attorney and lobbyist representing Casey's General Stores.

Similar bills have been stopped in the past and will likely run into well-organized resistance again from businesses seeking to avoid competition, said Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican. The Legislature also tends to protect locally owned liquor stores from national chains.

"The liquor industry has been pretty successful over time," Morris said. "When different pieces of legislation are introduced, you don't see much change, whether it's a tax proposal or 3.2" percent beer.

Some of those opponents already are criticizing the bill as an attempt by supermarkets and convenience stores to eventually push for the sale of liquor and wine.

The rule governing the sale of 3.2 beer is an outgrowth of Prohibition, which continued in Kansas after Congress repealed the ban on alcoholic beverages in 1933.

The 3.2 percent beer market was started in Kansas after lawmakers passed legislation in 1937 allowing the sale of "non-intoxicating beverages" with an alcohol content of not more than 3.2 percent by weight.

Twelve years later, the state said anyone 18 years or older could drink cereal-malt beverages. But lawmakers were forced to end that practice in 1985, raising the drinking age to 21 to avoid a 10 percent loss of federal highway funds.

The dramatically reduced the demand for cereal-malt beverages, changing the business landscape for supermarkets and convenience stores.

"If the drinking age was rolled back to 18, they'd take care of it," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. "The likelihood of it being rolled back is slim and none."

Morris said lawmakers have in the past showed "some" interest in reducing the drinking age.

"People have said for years if 18-year-olds can go to war, why shouldn't they be able to drink?" he said.