Pushing for A Change:Alcohol Task Force Gets Underway, Total Wine Launches Campaign

By Seth Daniel

Total Wine & More has launched a major advocacy campaign called the Consumers First Initiative to push for a change in alcohol pricing policies in the state, this coming on the same week at the new Alcohol Task Force held its first public meeting in Waltham.

The statewide campaign for Total Wine – which has locations in Everett and Natick – comes on the heels of the company filing a lawsuit in January after it was penalized by the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC) for allegedly pricing some of its alcohol below wholesale cost – something that interestingly enough is against the state regulations for alcohol sales.

“Total Wine & More has a long track record as a proven consumer ally, and this new Consumers First campaign will promote sensible and much needed updates to Massachusetts’ alcohol sale laws – some of which date back to Prohibition,” said Ed Cooper, vice president, Public Affairs & Community Relations at Total Wine & More. “Our entire business is built on creating a first class customer experience while providing the best value and selection in beverage alcohol. We take great pride in all the ways we serve our customers, and advocating on their behalf and being an ally is another way of serving them.”

The company was cited earlier this year after a tip came into ABCC investigators last fall. After an investigation of pricing in the store and wholesale purchase invoices and public hearings in December, the ABCC ruled in January that Total Wine violated state regulations.

The company fought back though, filing a lawsuit on January 30 in Suffolk Superior Court – saying it is their prerogative to price items in their store as they see fit and according to their own business model.

State regulators have said the rules are designed to help smaller operators be competitive in the highly regulated alcohol sales marketplace.

In response to that quandary and other regulatory conundrums, State Treasurer Deb Goldberg announced in January that a new Alcohol Task Force would convene to analyze all of the state’s regulations and rules.

“It is clear that our alcohol laws and regulatory structure have been in need of an exhaustive review for some time,” said Treasurer Goldberg at the time. “The report of this Task Force is critical to providing

the best structure that meets the expectation of effective and safe oversight.”

That Task Force launched its public meetings last Thursday, May 18, in Waltham.

Total Wine and the Consumers First Initiative launched the next day.

The Consumers First Initiative said it will use information and advocacy to demonstrate that protecting and serving consumers should be the first priority. Examples of savings and conveniences that consumers in Massachusetts are being denied include access to the best possible retailer coupon and customer loyalty programs, as well as regulatory obstacles that prevent the lowest prices from being passed on to customers from bulk wholesale discounts.

“We believe all alcohol retailers in Massachusetts should be advocates for consumers. They should favor allowing new ways for consumers to save on beer, wine and spirits,” Cooper said. “The Consumers First initiative will help give people a voice in advocating for sensible reforms.”

Those on Goldberg’s Task Force include:

  • E. Macey Russell, partner at Choate, Hall and Stewart.
  • Kate Cook, Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen.
  • Lisa Wong, former mayor of Fitchburg.
  • Rachel Rollins, former chief legal counsel at MassPort.
  • Robert Cerasoli, adjunct professor at Quincy College.
  • Pete Wilson, press secretary to Sen. President Stan Rosenberg.
  • John Fernandes, attorney.

The group is tasked with making a comprehensive assessment of the current alcoholic beverage industry and its regulatory structure in Massachusetts. They will establish working groups made up of relevant stakeholders focused on specific areas and topics associated

with the industry and its oversight. The task force will provide a preliminary report to the Treasurer within six months of convening.

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