By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
According to North Carolina law, any product containing spirits “regardless of its dilution” must be classified as spirits, taxed as such and sold only in ABC stores. Alcopops, sweet and fruity alcoholic beverages especially popular with underage drinkers, contain spirits. So what are these dangerous drinks doing on convenience store shelves?
That’s what public health advocates, as well as a growing number of concerned citizens across the state, are asking as part of the “Take it Back! North Carolina,” movement. Take it Back! North Carolina, a statewide advocacy group led by youth, is organizing a petition drive to have alcopops classified and taxed properly and, as a result, protect drinkers from tremendous harm.
Dozens of community organizations across the state have joined the campaign to reclassify alcopops. Once signatures are collected, Take It Back! North Carolina and partnering advocacy groups across the state will take the petitions to the ABC Commission and the Governor’s office to ask for reclassification.
Town Hall meetings are being held across the state of North Carolina to educate the public and local leaders about the issue. “Healthy 19-year-olds have dropped dead drinking this stuff,” Ava Troxler of the Coalition for Drug Abuse Prevention told the Winston Salem Journal at a recent Town Hall meeting. “It’s one night of binge drinking in a can.”
Dylan Mulrooney-Jones, co-chair of the policy and advocacy committee for the N.C. Substance Abuse Prevention Providers Association, has also been spreading the word about the dangers of alcopops and the need to keep them out of the hands of underage drinkers.
“These drinks are dangerous because they get you past what I call the ‘tastebud barrier,'” explained Mulrooney-Jones.
“The first time any kid tastes a beer, he or she is likely to spit it out because of the taste. It’s an acquired taste,” he said. “But these drinks that taste like sugary flavored lollipops don’t do that. You can disguise spirits in a drink but not beer. That’s why, to lure in new drinkers, the spirits in these drinks are so important.”
He said the products, which hit the market in the late 1990s are sold in containers ranging from 12 ounce bottles to 24-ounce single serving containers which have the equivalent of roughly 4.7 servings of alcohol. “Take it Back” refers to people “taking back” their communities from the grasp of alcohol.
The fact that alcopops are so often used as “starters” or “bridgers” by the spirits industry is one of many reasons “Take it Back” activists want the drinks sold in ABC stores only.
Agnes Stevens, spokeswoman for the ABC Commission, told the media that the Commission doesn’t have the authority to reclassify alcopops, since state law exempts flavorings and extracts that contain liquor from being sold in ABC stores.
But both Troxler and Mulrooney-Jones have pointed to the more applicable state law that classifies all malt beverages as liquor if they contain any spirits.
“The law is very clear, it just needs to be followed,” Mulrooney-Jones said, adding that the state’s Alcohol Beverage Commission has been allowing alcopops to be sold as beer following a Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau recommendation. An arm of the U.S. Treasury Department, the TTB ruled that if less than 49 percent of the alcohol in a beverage is spirits, it can be classified as a malt beverage. But, as “Take it Back” leaders point out, the 21st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives states authority over the sale, taxation and distribution of alcohol. So, state statutes trump federal level recommendations.
In fact, Nebraska’s State Supreme Court just ruled that alcopops should be treated as distilled spirits, not beer, and that the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission had overstepped its bounds in classifying them otherwise. The Court’s March 2 ruling acknowledged the TTB suggestions but confirmed that the agency’s intent was not to pre-empt state law and went further to say that had there been a conflict between state statutes and federal regulations, it would have been up to the Nebraska Legislature to address any needed change in the law, not left to the Liquor Commission to handle.
The legal situation in North Carolina is very similar, though public health advocates hope a lawsuit such as the one in Nebraska won’t be necessary.
Urging residents across the state to get informed on the alcopops issue and let their concerns be known, the goal of the “Take it Back” campaign and petition drive is to create political pressure to get the current law enforced.
“We’re trying to create some pushback. It’s going to take some political momentum to get somebody to pay attention to the fact that this is an easy part of the solution to teen drinking,” Mulrooney-Jones said. “We can easily reclassify something as what it should be under state laws and save lives and money in the process.”
Having alcopops correctly classified as spirits would move their sales to ABC stores, making them less accessible to youth, and would also increase their tax rate and cost to consumers- a proven method of reducing underage drinking.
The Marin Institute, now known as 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. Data from the 2005 Monitoring the Future study showed that 75 percent of eighth-grade drinkers and 65 percent of twelfth-grade drinkers consumed alcopops in the prior month.
“This is truly a no-brainer. We can continue to deal with the death and danger these products bring, leaving our young people especially in harm’s way, or we can enforce the state law and put the drinks in the ABC stores where they belong,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “Certainly there is still potential for abuse, but much less so. Having these drinks sold alongside everything else in a convenience store gives the impression they are harmless. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
He urged Christians to log onto http://www.petitionbuzz.com/petitions/reclassifyalcopops and sign the petition. Organizers hope to have collected at least 5,000 signatures when they present the petition to the ABC Commission this month.
Mulrooney-Jones also suggested concerned citizens take it a step further by working within their own non-profit or church groups to write a letter of support for “Take it Back” and spread the word to others.
“This campaign seeks to show the ABC Commission, the governor and our elected officials that this is really something that people care about,” he said. “There will come a point when enough people complain and have written enough letters that officials will finally see the need to act.”
He said beyond the precedent-setting Nebraska case, attorneys general in at least four states — California, Connecticut, Maine and Virginia — have concluded that alcopop producers are violating state laws by marketing their beverages as beer and not spirits.
To find out more about alcopops, log onto http://alcoholjustice.org/campaigns/stop-alcopops/9-alcopops-frequently-asked-questions.html.
To read and sign the Take it Back petition, go to www.petitionbuzz.com/petitions/reclassifyalcopops.