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‘Pop the Cap’: 10 Years and Every Fear Realized

Pop the Cap

Christian Action League
August 14, 2015
By Dr. Mark Creech

Inside a black frame and adorning the wall of the Christian Action League’s office is a memento of one of its previous legislative skirmishes. It features a wild-eyed, crazed-looking radical preacher with a Bible, pounding a pulpit and railing against the evils of alcohol. That’s how “Pop the Cap” proponents, who wanted to lift the limit on alcohol content in beer from 6% to 15%, portrayed my opposition to their proposal in 2005.

Sean Lilly Wilson, founder of Fullstream Brewery in Durham, spearheaded the effort and won. Wilson is now considered something akin to a “rock star” in a beer culture that has exploded on the Tar Heel state. He recently told Our State magazine the opposition he and his coalition first experienced to the proposal “was intense.” He said, “It was political theater. It was cartoony. It was absurdity.”

That’s only because Wilson and his cohorts depicted it that way, not because the alcohol-related health issues opponents warned lawmakers about had no basis in fact.

This month “Pop the Cap” celebrates ten years. A recent article in the Charlotte Observer sings it praises for creating thousands of jobs, and bringing in $791 million annually to the state’s economy. Moreover, the article says the industry’s success in the last decade is so great “North Carolina brewers now dream of being the center of beer on the East Coast.”

What the article doesn’t say, however, is that every fear raised against the initiative at the start has been realized, and more.

A Greater Risk for Hazardous Drinking

There was the fear that lifting the alcohol by volume limit on malt beverages would create a greater risk for hazardous drinking. Only four years after passage of “Pop the Cap”, in a USA Today story, substance abuse experts reportedly cautioned other states that were considering raising their cap on malt beverages. Brewers argued then, as they do now, that they needed the higher limits to achieve certain taste results. Craft beer buyers, they said, only drink to appreciate the flavors, and not to get drunk. But David Rosenbloom, who was president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at the time, now known as CASAColumbia® in New York, and headed by Sam Ball, PhD, told USA Today there was no evidence people who choose high content brews “will drink less or fewer beers.” Instead Rosenbloom argued the more alcohol, “the faster you get drunk and the longer you stay drunk.”

A Greater Risk for Underage Drinkers

Because beer is the beverage of choice for underage drinkers, many concerns were expressed about way the change would put them at greater risk. Studies have long shown that increasing the number of alcohol outlets imperils teens by making the possibility that they will get alcohol more likely. Limiting alcohol outlet density is one essential strategy for reducing underage drinking problems.

Since “Pop the Cap” passed there are now 132 craft breweries in North Carolina, up from 25 originally, with even more in the works. The Charlotte Observer states, “Today, supermarkets and bottle shops are crammed with choices, from the fresh, German–style Olde Mecklenburg to the tall cans of NoDa’s Hop Drop ’N Roll and Coco Loco. Craft styles from sour beers to goses, even mead, have bubbled up all over.”

Indeed they have. And, parents should be alarmed these beers, many of which are as high as 30 proof in alcohol content, can be sold in local grocery stores.

Alcohol Advertising Standards Have Been Lowered

While alcohol outlet density is up, the state’s standards for alcohol advertising are down from what they were. To further boost the burgeoning micro-brewing industry, lawmakers lowered the bar on alcohol advertising, also allowing beer tasting events at grocery stores and various food businesses. Malt beverage special permits are now allowed where free samples of beer are given, as well as freedom to sell at trade shows, conventions, shopping malls, festivals and similar events.

Recognizing the mountain of data showing greater exposure to alcohol advertising contributes to increased underage drinking; North Carolina didn’t used to permit such promotion and marketing. But as Bob Dylan once said, Money doesn’t just talk, it swears in obscenities.

Certainly the state’s Talk it Out campaign, initiated by North Carolina’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission is an important step in reducing underage drinking, but such actions are only frustrated when publicity criteria has been made lax.

Dangerous High Alcohol Content Brews Now Marketed

More problematic malt beverage products have also arrived on the scene since the passage of “Pop the Cap.”

In March of last year, Attorney General Roy Cooper, announced the manufacturer of the malt beverage, Four Loko, had reached an agreement with 19 other state attorneys general. Four Loko’s company was required to stop marketing its product in a way that dangerously promoted binge drinking among youth, and failed to disclose its effects of combining alcohol with caffeine.

The Triangle Business Journal noted that ”[w]hile it no longer contains caffeine, Four Loko comes in 23.5-ounce cans and has an alcohol content of 12 percent, comparable to four beers. It has been linked to alcohol poisoning and auto accidents, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as reported by WRAL.”

Other malt beverage products, like the current version of Four Loko, commonly referred to as alcopops, many of which are well-above above 6% in alcohol content, are serious catalysts for underage drinking issues. Made as sweet fruit favored alcoholic drinks that closely resemble sodas, these products are unquestionably meant to be a transition for youth from soft drinks to beer drinking. Alcopops are sold every day in North Carolina.

Alcohol Justice, reported that underage alcopop consumption cost North Carolina $207 million, took 10 lives and contributed to more than 7,800 incidents of harm in 2007 alone.

And what about the high alcohol content new malt liquor products that are such a problem for the Black and Hispanic communities that are now available?

None of these dangerous malt beverages with elevated alcohol levels, whether the caffeinated Four Loko, alcopops, certain malt liquors, etc., products characteristically associated with alcohol abuse, would have ever been able to enter the state’s market were it not for “Pop the Cap.”

image004Oh boy, let’s celebrate! Not!

Push to Reduce Taxes on Beer

We could also talk at length about the micro-brewing industry’s’ political push to reduce their excise taxes. Yet public health advocates have repeatedly said increasing taxes and prices on alcoholic beverages is an indispensable means for reducing alcohol related harms and excessive consumption. The last thing North Carolina needs is to lower its taxes on the beer industry.

Undermining of the Three-Tier System

We could further talk about the brewers’ efforts to undermine the state’s Three-Tier system of alcohol control. Micro-brewers can currently self-distribute if they remain under 25,000 barrels annually, which is a huge amount. Ninety-two percent of breweries in the country produce less than 7,500 barrels. But this year, brewers in the state sought to move a bill raising the number of barrels to 100,000. The passage of an initiative of this kind would be disastrous.

North Carolina’s three-tier system is made up of suppliers, distributors, and retailers. It’s an arrangement that provides critical checks and balances. Because of the independent buffer of a distributor between the supplier and the retailer, there are built in protections against corrupt, manipulative, or abusive industry practices.

To whatever level the three-tier system is diminished, the clarity of the chain of custody that scrupulously traces the product from production to sale is lost, protections against sales to minors and other abuses is lost, safeguards against contaminated or counterfeit products is lost, and an accurate means of collecting excise taxes is lost. To whatever means the specialty beer industry can get around this critical means of control, the public loses, the state and local communities lose, while the brewers laugh all the way to the bank.

So while many celebrate ten years of “Pop the Cap” this month and extol the many good things it purportedly brought about, keep in mind there is another face to the celebration – a sad one. Every fear that was expressed against the initiative, when it was first introduced, has now come to pass. And I can assure you, that’s not just the vociferations of some wild-eyed, crazed-looking, backwards, so-called prohibitionist preacher.