Keep booze away from kids

The consumption of hard liquor is on the rise in Washington. By itself, that’s a disturbing trend.

But, as The Olympian reported Sunday, it isn’t just adults older than 21 who have found the easier access to booze enticing. Since liquor privatization took effect June 1, juveniles are shoplifting hard liquor from large grocery stores at an alarming rate, leading to anecdotal reports of increased alcohol use by teens.

The situation has gotten so bad at one Safeway store in Lacey that North Thurston Public Schools is deploying its own security staff members to patrol the store’s aisles, where booze and energy drinks sit side-by-side.

This is unacceptable. All the major grocery stores must work quickly with law enforcement to reverse these trends. They have an unstated responsibility to make hard liquor less accessible to underage kids.

Critics of Initiative 1183, which ended the restriction of retail hard liquor sales to government-run stores, warned us this would happen. Private retailers, they said, won’t be as diligent about controlling access.

Lured by the possibility of lower prices, the public went along, convinced by a multi-million dollar advertising campaign largely funded by Costco. So far, it looks as if most of the I-1183 claims are proving false.

The average retail price of a liter of spirits has spiked 11.6 percent since June 1, according to a report from the state Department of Revenue. The statistics also show that consumer purchases have risen 7.9 percent.

That’s good news, from a strictly financial perspective. It means more revenue for the state.

But it’s not worth the human tragedies being created.

Thurston County juvenile prosecutor Wayne Graham says the 20 teenagers arrested for shoplifting hard liquor since June represent only “the tip of the iceberg.” The Washington State Organized Retail Crime Alliance reports that up to $20,000 of liquor thefts occurred during a recent six-week period.

And some, but not all, school districts are noticing an increase in alcohol-related problems.

High school students interviewed for The Olympian investigation said it’s easy to steal bottles of hard liquor from grocery stores, because “you’re not an automatic suspect when you walk in a grocery store.”

Few teens would have been as brazen in a government-run store.

The solution seems obvious. Grocery stores need to do a better job of restricting alcohol access and monitoring sales.

Major grocery stores routinely keep tobacco products behind cashier counters or inside locked glass cases, because they cannot sell cigarettes, cigars or chewing tobacco to anyone younger than 18.

It shouldn’t be difficult to apply the same type of restricted access to spirits.