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State Assembly bill would halt self-checkout alcohol sales

June 14, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
A state lawmaker hopes to curb the sale of alcohol to minors by targeting self-serve scanning stands at supermarkets and preventing people from cheating the system.

The grocery industry says its customers love the self-serve checkout service, and there's no evidence the new technology helps kids buy alcohol. A growing movement says it does.

More and more grocery stores are using self-serve checkout stands.

At Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market stores, for example, the registers are completely unmanned, with a worker stationed nearby for help.

At certain times, though, minors are able to buy alcohol, even though the self-serve stands are supposed to freeze and alert workers to check customer identification.

"When the store is really busy, it's just impossible to keep track of what's going on with all those registers," said Lisa Austin, a Fresh &Easy customer assistant.

There are ways to cheat the system by quickly scanning the next item or sliding a credit card for payment before the freeze happens. There also have been instances when a six-pack of soda is scanned, but a six-pack of beer is bagged.

A 2009 UCLA study found 20 percent of young adults were able to buy booze by tricking the self-check-out system. So state Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco) wants to bring back face-to-face interaction to alcohol sales, just like cigarettes.

"My bill simply requires that alcohol be purchased through a sales clerk and not a self-check-out machine," said Ma. "It is better to be safe than sorry."

The grocery industry says there's no correlation between self-serve check-outs and minors buying alcohol, citing a recent study by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

"Retailers will do anything they can to protect those liquor licenses. They're not going to sell to underage minors," said Ron Fong, president of the California Grocers Association.

Critics also point out the bill is backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which is fighting to save jobs threatened by new technology.

But the proposal is also supported by law enforcement and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Assemblywoman Ma's bill will be up for a state senate committee vote later this month. It's the same committee that killed the proposal once before.

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