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Keg-recording law linked to decline in underage drinking events


A recent law requiring anyone who buys a keg to register his name and address with the retailer has curbed the number of large, underage beer bashes throughout the state, enforcement officials say.

Dennis Theoharis, a license commissioner in Montgomery County, said he believed the 10-month-old law has foiled many young entrepreneurs -- usually 21- or 22-year-olds, just old enough to purchase a keg legally -- who, in recent years, have charged teen-agers admission to drunken parties in open fields.

Although disliked by tavern and liquor store owners, the law also has had a chilling effect on parents who in the past might have bought kegs for their children's high school graduation parties, Mr. Theoharis said.

"We have seen kegs [since the law went into effect] but we have been able to cite the people who bought them if there were minors drinking there," he said.

Although the evidence is anecdotal, enforcement officials said they believe the number of keg parties on campuses across the state, from Frostburg State University to Washington College, has dropped.

"The days are gone when going to college is an automatic path to drinking," said Mauritz "Marty" Stetson, chief liquor inspector for Kent County.

Cpl. Skip Stewart, a deputy sheriff in St. Mary's County, agreed.

"The big parties are much smaller now," said Corporal Stewart, whose rural Southern Maryland county includes St. Mary's College. "People are being a little more careful about who can get the beer when they buy a keg."

Maryland lawmakers had rebuffed proposals before passing a keg registration law in spring 1994. Washington and Virginia have similar statutes.

Under the measure, after obtaining a customer's name and address, retailers must affix a registration sticker -- which they buy from the Maryland State Comptroller -- to each keg sold for personal consumption.

Individual possession of an unregistered keg is a civil violation, similar to a traffic ticket, punishable by a $500 fine on the first offense. A retailer who does not put a registration label on a keg could be fined up to $100.

Marvin A. Bond, director of public affairs for the state comptroller, said retailers have bought 3,892 registration books -- each containing 25 stickers -- from his agency since the law went into effect.

Tavern and package store owners want lawmakers to repeal the law, the sooner the better. They complain that the law is ineffective, that adults who purchase the kegs can peel the registration stickers off and that the law is largely unenforced.

Cliff Phelps, owner of Phelps Liquors Pasadena, said he was angered when he read about five Anne Arundel County teen-agers who were arrested last week after a police officer found an unregistered keg in the back of their pickup truck.

Either they had peeled the sticker off, or someone sold the keg without registering it, said Mr. Phelps, legislative chairman for the Anne Arundel County Licensed Beverage Association.

Mr. Phelps said he has registered about 400 kegs since the law went into effect, but he believes many package store owners are ignoring the law.

"People have said to me,'Why are you bothering about this, Cliff? It isn't being enforced,' " Mr. Phelps said. "I'm breaking my neck to use this, but I have seen how inefficient it is."

Richard C. Bittner, chairman of the Anne Arundel County Board of License Commissioners, said as few as half of the retailers in Anne Arundel may be complying with the law.

The county only recently established its registration enforcement policy, said Mr. Bittner, who was named chairman in May. He said he does not expect Anne Arundel's 12 inspectors to begin issuing citations for several months, opting instead to encourage wayward retailers to comply with the law.

"Because there was some confusion within the board and within the industry, we thought out of fairness we should give them some leeway," Mr. Bittner said. "Then, if they don't comply, they operate at their peril."

Lou Thomas, president of the Maryland Licensed Beverage Association, said many members are clamoring for a repeal.

"It's a do-nothing bill," said Mr. Thomas, who owns a package store in Boonsboro, Washington County. "It was a bill passed to let legislators feel good about themselves in an election year. It was never properly thought out."

Repeal, however, may be politically premature, he said.

"The law has not been in effect a full year yet," Mr. Thomas said, noting that little statistical evidence exists on the impact of the law.

"I think we are going to have to live with it for a while," Mr. Thomas said.

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