BOSTON — Health officials want lawmakers to hold fast to decades-old limits on beer and wine licenses for fear that expanding them would lead to violent crime and higher rates of alcoholism.
A proposal by Cumberland Farms, which has already cleared several hurdles toward the November ballot, would gradually lift the state’s cap on off-premise beer and wine licenses. It would allow thousands of more liquor licenses for “food stores” to be issued while giving communities more control over licensing.
Under the ballot referendum process, lawmakers get a crack at approving the proposed changes before they’re put before voters.
But public health officials are voicing opposition to the initiative, which went before the Legislature’s Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure on Monday. Expanding access to beer and wine would have unintended effects, they argue, from increased rates of youth alcoholism to a rise in violent crime.
“We know that increasing the availability of alcohol leads to an increase in excessive drinking, especially underage drinking,” Kayla Vodka, a substance abuse expert with the Mystic Valley Public Health Coalition, told lawmakers. “Allowing an unlimited amount of alcohol licenses for food stores comes with an enormous public health cost.”
David Jernigan, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, said data has shown a rise in violent crime in places that expand access to alcohol. He cited studies of Baltimore and Los Angeles.
“Largely, because Boston has limits on the number of outlets, the relationship between alcohol and violent crime is much weaker here than in other cities,” he said.
Supermarkets are allowed to sell beer and wine in Massachusetts, but a single company is limited to seven licenses. That cap increases to nine next year under a pact between “packies” and food stores reached in 2011.
Cumberland Farms has argued that the cap on liquor licenses dates to the end of Prohibition and gives package stores an unfair advantage.
The Westborough company, which is being bought out by U.K.-based EG Group, has about 200 stores in Massachusetts. Only seven can sell beer and wine.
A representative for Cumberland Farms didn’t testify Monday, but the company sent lawmakers an email that said a written response would be forthcoming and suggested that support for the measure is increasing. “That growing coalition believes reforms to the current system are both necessary and long overdue,” the statement read.
Package store owners testified that doing so would saturate the beer and wine market with big competitors, driving mom-and-pop stores out of business.
“This is an overseas corporation that’s trying to disrupt and destroy the very lives and regulations that have kept this industry the way it has been since Prohibition,” said Ben Weiner, owner of Sav-More Spirits in Somerville and past president of the Massachusetts Package Store Association.
The group has filed a legal challenge seeking to overturn Attorney General Maura Healey’s decision to certify the referendum. It argues the ballot question is misleading and shouldn’t have been certified.
Cumberland Farms has already cleared several hurdles toward putting the question on the ballot, including collecting more than 130,000 signatures from supporters.
In 2006, voters rejected a ballot question by supermarkets to lift the liquor license caps to allow wine sales, keeping in place a three-store maximum.
Several years later, the Massachusetts Food Association gathered signatures to put the issue on the ballot but agreed to drop the measure when the Legislature passed a law to gradually increase the number of liquor licenses that can be held by a single company.
Those on both sides of the current question expect a costly fight if lawmakers don’t act before the deadline May 5.
A ballot question is likely to draw a crush of spending from both sides. The 2006 referendum saw $13 million spent by supporters and opponents, according to campaign finance records, making it the costliest question in state history at the time.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.