Monday, August 31, 2009

Saqib Ali and Nancy King Discuss Progressive Issues, Part Four

Part Four: Underage Drunk Driving and Alcopops.

By Delegate Saqib Ali (D-39).

Drunk driving has got to be one of the most wreckless activities that I can possibly imagine. It is a scourge on our society. Some of my closest friends have been killed by drunk drivers. Our County Executive Ike Leggett was recently injured by one. Unfortunately it is an epidemic in our community. I hear about friends-of-friends getting DUIs all the time. So of course when I got elected to the legislature, I planned to do everything in my power to reduce drunk driving. Especially underage drunk driving.

That's why last year when a pro-alcohol bill came up in Annapolis, I knew immediately that I would oppose it. Senate Bill 745 dealt with restrictions on sales of alcoholic beverages known as "Alco-Pops." Alco-Pops are fruity malt-beverages that are insidiously marketed towards young people.... especially young women. Alco-Pops are especially dangerous because the high alcohol content is masked by fruity flavors and attractive colorings. You've all seen them in liquor stores: drinks like Mike's Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Breezer. The problem with Alco-Pops is that they are often consumed by underage kids -- kids who sometimes then get into cars and kill themselves or others. Unfortunately kids can too easily get their hands on these drinks since they are sold cheaply and commonly.

In late 2007 Attorney General Doug Gansler issued the common-sense ruling that these drinks were actually distilled spirits, not beer. And thus like all other distilled spirits, they should be taxed at a higher rate and sold only by holders of retail liquor licenses. This ruling would reduce underage drinking by restricting access and increasing prices. But the powerful alcohol industry in Annapolis was not amused. They wanted to keep their pipeline to underage kids going. So they introduced SB 745 that would nullify Gansler's ruling. This bill was widely panned by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other public safety advocates. There was simply no good reason it should have ever seen the light of day. But it passed over the the objections of a large minority of legislators.

The Washington Post wrote: "Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has issued an opinion that, under state law, these drinks are distilled spirits and should be taxed and distributed as such. The action has prompted an end-around by state lawmakers cozy with the beer and liquor industry...Their bill, passed by the Senate yesterday and now before the House, would formally define the drinks as beer, which would keep the drinks teen-friendly. The proposed definition is blatantly dishonest...Ease of access to these sweet but loaded beverages -- which are cutely disguised as cola, lemonade, iced tea or fruit punch -- also depends on how they are classified. Distilled spirits can be sold only by holders of retail liquor licenses. When classified as beer, the alcohol-flavored beverages can be sold by any location holding a beer license -- convenience stores and other spots more likely to be frequented by young people. True, underage consumption of any alcohol is already against the law, and, yes, kids can find older buyers to get any drink. But why increase the ease of access? Maryland lawmakers should reflect on that question before the final vote on this bad bill."

I voted against this bill, of course. There is nothing the alcohol industry could have given me to change my mind. Nancy voted for it. I'm sure she had her well-considered reasons. But it's just another fundamental difference in our legislative records.