'Alcopops' bill takes a beating

The Baltimore Sun

A key lawmaker threw cold water yesterday on attempts by public health advocates to restrict the sale of flavored malt beverages sometimes called "alcopops," which studies have linked to underage drinking and alcoholism.

"I have reservations about the bill, not about what they're trying to accomplish," said Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the committee that engaged in hours of heated debate this week over alcohol reform bills. "Nothing in the testimony swayed my opinion that the state's current policy should be altered."

That assessment would seem to confirm the conclusion by the state's powerful liquor lobby that it left an anti-alcopops bill "bloodied" and "beaten" after a contentious hearing Monday in the Economic Matters Committee.

Last year, the General Assembly and Gov. Martin O'Malley upheld the beer-equivalent status of sugary drinks such as Smirnoff Ice and Mike's Hard Lemonade, to the chagrin of activists who believe the beverages are marketed to teenagers. Under a bill sponsored this year by Del. William A. Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat, the beverages would be restricted to establishments licensed to sell distilled spirits - effectively banning them from the shelves of about 1,400 beer-and-wine retailers across the state.

The governor supports the measure, a policy shift that comes after taking "a closer look at this in the off-session," said spokesman Rick Abbruzzese in an interview.

"This is precisely the kind of reasonable measure that will help prevent youth drinking," said Marlene Trestman of the attorney general's office, which is also supporting the measure.

Also referred to as "enhanced beer," the beverages are the drink of choice of young imbibers, said David H. Jernigan, a Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health professor who has advised the World Health Organization on alcohol policies. Jernigan cited a 2007 federal survey reporting that 77 percent of alcohol-using eighth-graders had a flavored malt beverage in the past month.

Marta Harding, a lobbyist for the spirit company Diageo, told the House committee that the bill's proponents had "absolutely no credible evidence" to suggest that alcopops are favored by youths and that claims of marketing to children are "absolutely false." Harding said the typical flavored malt beverage drinker is a 35-year-old woman.

Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist for the Licensed Beverage Distributors of Maryland, called the bill "bloodied" before taking his turn this week at the witness table, and declared it "beaten up pretty badly."

Among other alcohol bills considered yesterday was a perennial attempt by wineries to loosen the state's alcohol-distribution system and ship wine directly to consumers; and a new initiative that would create a liquor license category allowing wineries some of the privileges of retailers.

Davis, the chairman, said before the hearing that he thought his committee would again reject the direct-to-consumers wine bill this year, largely out of concerns that it would make it easier for minors to access alcohol.

Bronrott, who has gone up against the liquor lobby and lost before, said he remains optimistic. Asked after the hearing whether he felt bloodied and beaten, Bronrott shrugged and said, "I feel pretty good, actually. I'll sleep well tonight."

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