New city law to prevent liquor stores from selling snacks, other goods to kids

Outside West Baltimore's Penn Station Liquors, folks say the store is no place for children.

Only a block away from Westside Elementary School, Penn Station is one of four liquor businesses within feet of each other on North Fulton Street. Youngsters sometimes wander in to buy candy, soda and chips — stocked next to the alcohol, flavored cigars and sex pills.

"Kids don't belong here," says Pauline White, 50, who lives nearby. "When people start drinking, they get crazy."

On Monday, the City Council overwhelmingly voted to pass a bill, championed by freshman Councilman Nick Mosby, to make it illegal for liquor stores to sell anything to minors, including seemingly innocuous goods such as snacks or T-shirts. Through a spokesman, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Tuesday she will sign the bill into law. It will go into effect 30 days later.

Mosby remembers when he and his buddies would buy their snacks from similar stores in the Northwood neighborhood where he grew up. He says they quickly became immersed in liquor store culture — one friend started carrying around his soda in a brown paper bag.

"We shouldn't be teaching our children liquor store etiquette at 7, 8, 9 years old," Mosby says.

Though the measure won widespread support — even the group representing Korean-American grocers eventually dropped its opposition — it does have critics. The legislation applies to stores that do as little as 20 percent of their business in sales of alcohol. At public hearings, some residents worried that it would prevent youngsters from buying food at the only store in their neighborhood, Mosby said. Others thought it unconstitutional. Eddie's supermarket in Roland Park was concerned it could apply to them.

Mosby had to compromise and meet with critics to get the bill passed. He dropped the age of those prohibited from purchasing anything at liquor stores from 21 to 18 and added amendments aimed at exempting grocery stores and restaurants. Any store where alcohol makes up less than 20 percent of sales is exempted, as is any restaurant that sells 60 percent of its alcohol to dine-in patrons. The bill does not apply to establishments that sell beer and wine, but not hard liquor.

"I want kids to be able to go eat a hamburger at a restaurant," Mosby says.

At first, the bill faced opposition from the Korean-American Grocers Association, which described it as racist before withdrawing opposition.

"We engaged in discussions with Councilman Mosby and determined there is no discriminatory intent whatsoever," said Bryan Everett, an attorney for the grocers. "We understand that the intent of the bill is to protect children. My clients are very sensitive to that."

Mosby also rejects criticism that the bill could make it harder to find food in poor neighborhoods, saying the liquor stores generally don't carry healthy food.

"Eating ramen noddles, blow pops or chips is not how we want to feed our children," he said.

Several states — including Pennsylvania, Texas and Oklahoma — have laws similar to Mosby's that prohibit minors from entering liquor stores, according to the city's law department. City lawyers said they believe the law could survive any possible legal challenges, arguing that it does not violate the Constitution's commerce or equal-protection clauses.

No one could "plausibly argue buying non-alcoholic goods and merchandise at store selling alcohol is a fundamental right," the law department wrote in support of the measure.

The bill is one effort by city government to crack down on liquor stores in some neighborhoods. This month, city health officials and planning officials said they will use a citywide rezoning effort to force some stores in residential areas to move, shut down or change their offerings, linking the outlets to higher levels of violent crime.

At Gera Variety Discount Liquors on Reisterstown Road, owner Suzie Chang isn't one of those businesses targeted for closure. Still, her store sells a wide variety of non-alcoholic products — such as pain relievers and beauty supplies — and will be affected by Mosby's law. Chang sometimes sells snacks to children.

"They buy soda and chips and it's OK," she says.

Chang says she understands why some adults don't want young people in liquor stores, but notes the bill will hurt her business, even though minors account for only a small portion of her sales.

"It's not good for retailers," she says of Mosby's proposal.

Mosby understands her point, but says he cares more about protecting young people than a liquor store's bottom line.

His first major of piece of legislation, Mosby says he plans to frame the bill — which he says represents the community-oriented ideals he wants to stand for as an elected official.

"It's a huge victory," he says. "It's something I always wanted to do."

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