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Other States Watching How Nebraska Handles ‘Alcopops’

August 1, 2008

By Martha Stoddard, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

Aug. 1–LINCOLN — Other states are watching what Nebraska decides about taxing and regulating flavored malt beverages, according to a national alcohol policy consultant.

By deciding to treat the products as distilled spirits, Nebraska would add momentum to national efforts to keep the drinks out of the hands of minors, said James Mosher, the California-based consultant.

“They’re starter beverages,” Mosher said Thursday. “It’s a way to drink alcohol without having to deal with the harsh taste of alcohol.”

However, Marc Sorini of the Flavored Malt Beverage Coalition said raising taxes on drinks such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Smirnoff Ice would hurt Nebraska businesses and consumers.

He told the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission that the state’s resources would be better spent trying to reduce youths’ access to alcohol in general, instead of targeting one type of alcoholic drink.

“This is a complex issue, and we believe that scapegoating a particular product is wrong,” Sorini said.

The three-member liquor commission held a public hearing on a proposed rule that would continue the state’s practice of taxing and regulating flavored malt beverages as beers. That practice follows federal policy.

Flavored malt beverages are brewed like beers but have most of the beer taste and color and some of the alcohol stripped away. Flavors produced through a distilling process are then added to replace some of the brewed alcohol.

The drinks, labeled “alcopops” by opponents, have been controversial since they first hit the market about 2000. The controversy increased after a 2003 study found that many such drinks got most of their alcohol from distilled spirits.

In 2005, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau ruled that it would treat flavored malt beverages as beers as long as the drinks get 51 percent of their alcohol from the brewing process.

Most flavored malt beverages have 5 percent alcohol or less, similar to beer.

Opponents on Thursday urged the liquor commission to treat the drinks as distilled spirits, which would mean higher taxes and more restrictions on where the drinks can be sold.

Both results would discourage use of the drinks by young people. They cited a University of Michigan survey showing that in 2007, among eighth-graders who drink, 77 percent drink flavored malt beverages.

“I would like to price my kids out of the alcopop arena,” said Tim Regler of Nebraska City, father of six girls.

Kathy Siefken, executive director of the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association, said higher taxes on the products would hurt adult consumers and encourage shoppers to cross state lines to buy the beverages.

Siefken said efforts to reduce underage drinking should focus on the adults who supply most alcohol to minors.

Sorini noted that underage drinking has declined despite the advent of flavored malt beverages.

The Michigan study showed that drinking among eighth-graders dropped from 22.4 percent in 2000 to 15.9 percent in 2007. Among 12th-graders, drinking dropped from 32.3 percent to 28.7 percent over the same years.

The liquor commission will take written comments on the proposed regulation through Aug. 31. Members will not make a decision until September or October.

–Contact the writer: 402-473-9583, martha.stoddard@owh.com

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