California’s Board of Equalization took the surprising move today (by a one vote margin) of redefining distilled spirits using some very odd language. The new definition, which takes effect in July 2008, was re-written in an effort by neo-prohibitionist groups to tax FMB’s (flavored malt beverages, a.k.a. alcopops or malternatives) at a higher rate under the pretense of keeping them out of the hands of children. The idea that by making them more expensive they’ll be less attractive to younger and underage drinkers is, of course, prima facie ridiculous. I can understand the state’s angle because it will produce more revenue for them, but that it will help cure underage drinking is pure fantasy. California State Controller John Chiang went so far as to say “taxing flavored malt beverages as liquor will also help reduce their popularity with young people by simply pricing the product out of their reach.” Tell that to the sixteen-year old punks driving around Marin County in new BMW’s that they won’t be able to afford Smirnoff Ice anymore. What utter hogwash.
Even if I accept such tortured logic, why should everybody — older adults included — be punished with higher prices and why should those companies arbitrarily now have to pay significantly higher taxes? I think McDonald’s happy meals are destructive to the health of our nation’s youth. Should we charge McDonald’s a health tax on every happy meal so they’re so expensive no one will buy them anymore, for the good of our children? I think Coke is rotting the teeth and insides of millions of kids. Should a bottle of Coca-cola cost $5.00 to compensate for the health risks and keep children from buying them? Would it then be fair that the rest of us have to spend $5, too, to buy a coke and a smile? Why should every product we don’t want kids to have be more expensive for the rest of us just so they may not be able to afford it? It just doesn’t make sense. But that’s effectively the logic at work here. Is that really how we want to orient our society?
Here is the new language:
Regulation 2558. Distilled Spirits. Define distilled spirits to include any alcoholic beverage, except wine, which contains 0.5 percent or more alcohol by volume from flavors or ingredients containing alcohol obtained from the distillation of fermented agricultural products. (emphasis added.)
What’s troubling about this decision is that this new definition could — which means probably will — be interpreted to include some beer aged in oak barrels as well as certain other craft beers as distilled spirits. If subject to the much higher spirits tax, it will make them either prohibitively expensive or, more likely, effectively force brewers to stop making them altogether. And that would effectively quash some of the most innovative beers being produced today.
According to people who attended the hearing, it appears likely that this issue may be challenged in the courts and/or be dealt with through the legislature. Neo-prohibitionist groups, of course, are already claiming victory and sending out celebratory press releases, such as the one I received from the Marin Institute, who referred to the votes as “historic” and applauded the “strong leadership” of California’s state controller John Chiang. Apparently they regard a strong leader as someone who does their bidding.
Here’s some more back-patting from the press release:
“This is an enlightened step forward in controlling underage consumption of alcohol,” said Bruce Lee Livingston, MPP, Executive Director of Marin Institute. “For generations, Big Alcohol has evaded proper taxation on these products. Now, the state will benefit and the health and well-being of our youth will be improved.”
I find it curious that they even use the word “enlightened,” since that brings to mind the Enlightenment, a time that couldn’t be more removed from the sort of tactics neo-prohibitionists are using now. To enlighten, means to “to give intellectual or spiritual light to” something, or in older parlance to simply “shed light upon.” Trying to remove alcohol from society in order to impose ones own morals on everyone else is the very opposite of enlightened.
Then there’s his “[f]or generations, Big Alcohol has evaded proper taxation on these products.” (my emphasis.) A generation is generally considered to be about thirty years. FMBs first appeared a little over ten years ago, fifteen at most. And they really didn’t become all that popular until the introduction of Smirnoff Ice, which was in 2001. That was only six years ago, not quite the at least sixty years that Chiang’s “generations” implies.
“Public policy trumped corporate-influenced politics today,” said Michele Simon, Director of Research and Policy at Marin Institute. That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose. Another is ‘fear mongering moral crusaders hijacked democracy in an effort to advance their own narrow agenda by pretending to care about the welfare of children and trumped common sense and reason today.’ It’s all how you choose to spin it.
Now personally I’m no fan of FMBs, either, and I also think they subvert young people from discovering the joys of craft beer, but I don’t believe making them more expensive is in any way useful. If the true goal of the neo-prohibitionists really is to keep them out of the hands of children (as they claim), a more effective strategy might be to keep kids from drinking sweet soda and developing a fondness for sweeter drinks in the first place. Then alcopops would not have the same appeal for them as they get older. Plus it would have the added benefit of keeping kids healthier by reducing their intake of sugar, high fructose syrup and other harmful chemicals in today’s soda-pop. But I don’t think this brouhaha really is about the children, but rather is anti-alcohol merely using children as a justification that’s easier to sell than another prohibition.
And that’s why I’m particularly troubled by the vague language of the new definition. Because I believe this is just another first step in a larger and more sinister effort not just to control children’s access to FMBs, but to restrict access to all alcohol. Today it’s FMBs, tomorrow … who knows what. So the enemy of my enemy is my friend in this case. If it was just about the taxes I wouldn’t like it, but at least I’d understand it. The way the neo-prohibitionist groups have been pushing against FMBs makes it obvious that it’s about more than just money. That they’ve persuaded the state of California to take this step and play into their hands is quite disturbing, to say the least.