Mixing kids and liquor

The Baltimore Sun

During his first 15 months in office, Gov. Martin O'Malley has demonstrated a willingness to champion unpopular causes, from adding a penny to the sales tax to opposing the death penalty. But is he willing to challenge one of the most powerful players in Annapolis - the liquor lobby - for the health and safety of teenagers? The governor has an opportunity to do just that by vetoing a bill that would redefine beer to include so-called alcopops, sweet alcoholic drinks that are often flavored as lemonade, watermelon or grape juice and tend to attract underage drinkers.

This much is certain: These flavored malt beverages sure don't look or taste anything like beer. But they've been treated in the past as beer under Maryland law, which means they're taxed at a much lower rate and are distributed far more widely than hard liquor.

But an opinion issued by Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler was set to rightfully reclassify them as distilled spirits - until the General Assembly intervened and, in the session's waning hours, handed the liquor industry a major windfall. It was disappointing but hardly a surprise. The liquor lobby is one of the state's most generous political donors, handing out nearly $3 million over the last 10 years. As a result, Maryland maintains some of the lowest alcohol taxes in the nation; the tax on liquor hasn't been raised in 53 years.

At the very least, lawmakers should have created a third category of alcoholic beverage to cover these increasingly popular drinks and taxed them accordingly. The consequences of their failure could prove tragic: Young people, particularly girls, are targeted consumers; teen drinkers are more likely to reach for an alcopop than an adult drinker is.

Mr. O'Malley needs to veto the alcopops bill. Alcohol abuse and drunken driving are large enough problems for young people without making it cheaper and easier for them to buy their favorite beverage.

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