Magazine article State Legislatures

Spirited Debate: Some Lawmakers Think Flavored Malt Beverages Need Tighter Regulation

Magazine article State Legislatures

Spirited Debate: Some Lawmakers Think Flavored Malt Beverages Need Tighter Regulation

Article excerpt


Sitting alongside six-packs of Coors and Budweiser in most retail outlets is another type of drink that is raising concerns among some lawmakers-flavored malt beverages.

Mike's Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Silver are all part of a growing group of beverages that underage drinking prevention advocates consider a bridge drink. They are particularly attractive to underage drinkers, they say, because they are sweetened for novice drinkers who don't like the taste of beer or hard liquor.

Alcohol industry representatives note they are legal and question how significant a role they play in underage drinking.

"Remember that [flavored malt beverages] are a very small part of the market ... and have had no impact on the rate of underage drinking," says Mark Sorini of the Flavored Malt Beverages Coalition, an advocacy group sponsored by the alcohol industry. "In fact, those rates have been declining."

Maryland Delegate William Bronrott sees it differently. He recently sponsored legislation that would restrict the sale of flavored malt beverages to stores in Maryland licensed to sell only distilled spirits.

"These drinks are particularly attractive to younger consumers, and there are a lot of public health and safety concerns," he says.


His proposal would have effectively removed them from the shelves in some 1,400 beer-and-wine retailers across the state. The legislation failed to move out of committee, however.

Forty-seven states classify the drinks as beer, according to the Flavored Malt Beverage Coalition. The exceptions are California, Maine and Utah, although the effect of their classification varies.

Although flavored malt beverages contain distilled spirits, they are made from beer. Several states have considered legislation to reclassify the beverages as hard liquor, but faced alcohol industry opposition.


The debate is relevant for policymakers, in part because taxes on beer are lower than on distilled spirits. In addition, beer can be sold in more establishments than hard liquor, giving more people easier access to flavored malt beverages.

The process to make a flavored malt beverage--often called an "alcopop"--starts with a beer base. Producers strip out all of the beer flavoring, color and odor, then add the distilled spirits, flavors and colors. Although flavored malt beverages contain roughly the same amount of alcohol as beer, about 5 percent--up to half of the alcohol-comes from distilled spirits such as whiskey or vodka.

Federal rules issued in 2005 set a maximum amount of distilled spirits that can be added to the drinks. Eight states--Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington--amended their laws to conform to the federal regulations.

States regulate alcoholic beverage sales, however, and they should impose stricter standards than the federal rules, says James F. Mosher, an attorney and alcohol policy researcher with the CDM Group who has been tracking flavored malt beverages since their inception.

Mosher and underage drinking prevention advocates contend the sweet and fruity drinks appeal to young girls who don't like the taste of hard alcohol and beer.

"It's a bridge beverage--a bridge between soft drinks and harder liquor--to reach young people because of the regulatory advantages," Mosher says.

That notion, however, is disputed by the alcoholic beverage industry. The drinks "may get in the hands of youth, but other products do as well," says Sorini. "Many underage drinkers obtain alcohol from noncommercial sources--such as adults providing it to them."

New Mexico Representative Keith Gardner, the minority whip, thinks underage drinking is a problem, but does not agree that new restrictions on flavored malt beverages is the solution. …

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