Alco-Pops And The Timid Governor
Why would Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley choose to make it easier for the makers of sweet-flavored malt beverages to market their wares to teenagers?
Depending on whether you consider them an insidious invitation to underage drinking or a refreshing way to get young adults into drinking alcohol, you might call these products alcopops, "girlie drinks," or "spirit-flavored alcoholic beverages."
Whatever you call them, Maryland has just taken a step in the opposite direction from California and other states that are trying to tighten regulations on the drinks, in effect making them more expensive in an effort to make them less attractive and less available to teenagers.
While California decided that drinks such as Mike's Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Silver Mojito are liquor, O'Malley's decision to let a bill become law without his signature means that those same drinks will now be considered the same as beer in Maryland--a status that qualifies these drinks for the same low tax rate that beers enjoy.
Maryland's debate over what to do about so-called alcopops stems from the fact that hard liquor is taxed at $1.50 a gallon, while beer is taxed at only nine cents a gallon. The sweet malt beverages are cheap in large part because they've been considered the same as beer so far. But state Attorney General Doug Gansler issued an opinion earlier this spring saying that Maryland would henceforth categorize the sweet malts as hard liquor.
Citing a federal study showing that most of the alcohol in the drinks comes not from fermented malt or grain, but from distilled spirits, Gansler ruled that the state interest is in helping the fight against teen drinking by taxing the sweet drinks at a higher rate. (Some anti-teen drinking advocates say there ought to be a middle ground between the high tax for hard liquor and the low beer tax.)
Gansler notes that there is a social value in "raising the price of these and other alcoholic
beverages to discourage adolescent alcohol use," and concludes that alcopops should be sold only by retail outlets with full liquor licenses, another way to raise the hurdle for underage drinkers who might want to buy the sweet stuff.
That the drinks are aimed at a young audience is hardly in question. The industry, of course, argues that its target audience for the sweet malts is the 21-34 year-olds, but a federal survey of high school kids tells the real story, finding last year that 13 percent of eighth graders, 24.7 percent of tenth graders and 29.3 percent of high school seniors had reported drinking flavored malt beverages in the month preceding the survey.
Ok, so why wouldn't O'Malley veto the legislature's cynical attempt to undo Gansler's opinion and make certain that sweet malt drinks remain cheap and easy to buy?
The governor says that he decided not to join the effort to regulate these drinks more strictly for procedural reasons: He didn't want to make new law through the combination of the attorney general's opinion and his own veto. "I look forward to returning to the flavored malt beverage issue during the next legislative session, working with advocates on both sides, to build a broader consensus for regulating these alcoholic beverages," O'Malley said. "It is my opinion that the Constitution contemplates, and the public expects, major regulatory and taxation decisions of this nature to be made in the fullness of legislative consideration, not through the chance confluence of an opinion of the Attorney General and the veto of a Governor."
If that sounds like a load of hogwash, that's because it is. What happened here, according to Annapolis lobbyists, is that the governor caved to the loud and insistent efforts of the beer and liquor industry to retain the status quo. It certainly didn't hurt that this decision also allowed O'Malley to take a stand that tripped up Gansler's efforts to make political hay on the alcopops issue, which obviously plays well with the ambitious attorney general's base of concerned suburban parents. (Gansler played the gentleman in his reaction to the governor's decision, saying that there will indeed be a chance to change the law next session.)
Never underestimate the power of internal Democratic party rivalries to help steer the direction of policymaking in Maryland.
O'Malley is taking a beating from the advocacy groups that fight the alcohol industry. Will the lovers of Smirnoff Ice and its competitors rally to the governor's side to thank him for keeping their favorite beverages cheap? Hardly likely. So look for O'Malley to come back to this next year, searching for a middle course. Too bad, really, because this is the kind of issue on which a good, hard stance is the only path that sends the right message.
By Marc Fisher |
May 27, 2008; 8:00 AM ET
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