Senate holds hearing on “alcopops” — malt beverages marketed to teens

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The Senate Standing Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse held a hearing today on the marketing and sale of high-alcohol flavored malt beverages and the ease of access minors have to these types of drinks. Speakers referred to the drinks as “alcopops” because they taste a lot like soda and “binge in a can,” since they come in large cans and have a high alcohol content. They are considered “entry-level” drinks for people who don’t like the flavor of beer.

Representatives of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, alcohol- and drug-abuse treatment providers and community organizations who testified before the committee have said that the beverages are marketed to children in colorful bottles that often are situated next to non-alcoholic beverages where they are sold. Store clerks may not be able to tell the difference between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. They come in flavors like bubble gum, watermelon and blue raspberry.

Four Loko, a high-alcohol flavored malt beverage, had been selling products with caffeine in them, but New York prohibited the products last fall. The company now sells the same drinks, which have 12 percent alcohol, but without caffeine.

Retailers are targeting teens with the inexpensive product, said James Genova, project director of Eastchester Communities That Care in Westchester County.

“Adolescents drink alcohol for one reason and one reason only, and that is to get drunk,” Genova said.

Senate Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Chairman Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, is sponsoring legislation to require that flavored malt beverages with more than 6 percent alcohol and 1 percent sugar that also includes added flavorings be sold in liquor stores, rather than grocery and convenience stores. Examples of added flavorings are fruit juices, chocolate, licorice and caffeine.

The bill seeks to limit access to the beverages because people younger than 21 can buy products in grocery and convenience stores but not in liquor stores.

Under the bill, which doesn’t have an Assembly sponsor at this time, traditionally brewed beers would remain classified as and sold as beer.

Members of the Flavored Malt Beverage Coalition said they support the concept behind the bill and believe it is well intentioned, but they believe it is not the right way forward.

The legislation “really proposes to cast a very broad net” and would be over-inclusive, said Marc Sorini, counsel for the Flavored Malt Beverage Coalition. It would be up to the state Liquor Commission to “pull fish out of that net,” he said.

“We think that’s going to be very difficult to do,” he added.

Sorini predicted that the legislation could prompt a lot of litigation from companies whose products weren’t pulled out of the net.

Greg Altscuh of the coalition said a number of flavored malt beverages have an alcohol content of 4 percent to 5 percent, like beer, and do not contain liquor.

Mike’s Hard Lemonade has less than 6 percent alcohol by volume, but Mikes Harder Lemonade has about 8 percent alcohol.

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