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Alcohol Retailers Force New Political Battle in Connecticut Over Bottle Prices

Derek Gavey/flickr creative commons
Total Wine & More, and Stamford-based BevMax are advertising cheaper prices in violation of the law.

Two liquor chains who are openly flouting state law on minimum pricing of alcohol are creating fresh political tension over the issue. Connecticut law mandates that alcohol cannot be sold below a certain minimum price per bottle; those prices are set by the state, and posted on the website of the Department of Consumer Protection. The statute has been challenged several times in the legislature. Governor Dannel Malloy himself is known to want to reform it, and tried to bring change on minimum pricing along with introducing Sunday sales of alcohol in the state.

But it’s been fiercely protected by lobbyists working with the state’s small package stores, who say they will be driven out of business if bigger chain retailers are allowed to offer deep discounts.

Now two of those chains, Total Wine & More, and Stamford-based BevMax are advertising cheaper prices in violation of the law, in an attempt to challenge it.

Total Wine has also filed a lawsuit challenging the statute. "Current Connecticut laws mandate us to price our products higher than what we believe is fair," said a statement on the company's website. "We believe that our customers deserve better."

Commissioner of the Department of Consumer Protection, Jonathan Harris, said agents from his office are gathering evidence in an investigation of both companies. "That’ll be sent to legal, and they’ll determine whether to proceed with an enforcement action," Harris told WNPR. "So in this case we are following our ordinary practice -- our usual procedures to enforce the law.”

Questioned about the controversy this week, Malloy declined to condemn the action of the two retailers. “I believe we’re penalizing our state residents by charging them substantially more for alcoholic beverages than surrounding states,” said the governor. But he also said he would not get involved in DCP's handling of the case.

Meanwhile, Republican Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano has written to Harris, urging his office to take swift action. 

"It is the responsibility of your department to enforce these laws which ensure that all package store retailers in Connecticut have the equal opportunity to compete," Fasano writes in his letter, condemning the actions of Total Wine and BevMax. "Their behavior is completely inexcusable. I ask that you act swiftly to implement the appropriate punishment including but not limited to a temporary injunction to stop this violation of state law."

DCP said it cannot yet speculate on when its investigation might be complete.

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