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The Lie That Won’t Go Away

In a disappointing editorial in today’s San Francisco Chronicle entitled Liquor By Any Other Name, the lie that alcopops, malternatives, and FMBs contain spirits is once more trotted out in what appears to be wholesale propaganda rather than honest editorializing.

Last year, the California Board of Equalization apparently bowed to pressure from anti-alcohol groups and reclassified FMBs as spirits, despite the fact that they DO NOT contain spirits. I wrote about this deception last year when the BOE passed the new rules. At that time, Michael Scippa, advocacy director for the Marin Institute, was using the tactic of repeating a falsehood in the hopes that eventually people would take it as a fact. I won’t dignify it by repeating it here, but this was my response.

That’s not true, they are malt beverages with flavoring added. Distilled spirits are not added and it is not where their “alcoholic content” is derived from. They are most closely related to beer, which is precisely why they they are called flavored malt beverages and why they have been taxed like beer. Their alcohol content is likewise about the same as the average beer. They are fermented like beer and then chemical flavoring compounds are added, which give FMBs their distinctive sweet, fruity essence. Unlike attorney Scott Dickey’s assertions, which in fact are mischaracterizations, FMBs are exactly what their name suggests, no one has deceived anyone.

In the editorial, they state that revenues of $38 million were expected from the reclassification, but that only about $9,000 in taxes has been paid. Apparently, FMB manufacturers in response re-formulated their drinks to remove even the chemical essence of their spirits flavors and — probably, this is just a guess — used strictly chemical flavorings not derived in any way from their spirits. If the new law says, however ridiculously, that no spirits whatsoever can be in these drinks, then they did what any logical person would do, they removed them. But because this has nothing to with fairness, this has our editorialist up in arms. Here’s how they put it.

The manufacturers admit that they’re not paying the tax, and — get this — they don’t think they need to, because over the course of the last year they’ve managed to “alter” the drink formulas of thousands of these beverages so that they’re technically beers, not liquor.

Well, get this, they always were “technically beers” and no amount of wishing otherwise will change that fact. They never were “liquor,” only the BOE changed the definition so that the inclusion of any amount of “spirits” would reclassify them as “liquor” for purposes of taxation. That in no way magically converted them into a liquor. It’s in a sense the same way that a person with any African-American blood in them, no matter how distant, once made them classified as a black person in our more racist past. An ugly example, to be sure, but that’s exactly what the neo-prohibitionists are doing, making it seem as if a 5% a.b.v. FMB is the same as a bottle of 100 proof whisky just because it contains an infinitesimal amount of the essence of a spirit flavoring. And then the editorial has the audacity to call the FMB manufacturers “disingenuous, if not deceptive.” Oh, and just to illustrate how much they don’t understand this issue, there are about twelve manufacturers of FMBs, each making perhaps no more than a half-dozen brand extension flavors, nowhere near the “thousands” that the editorial asserts.

According to current law, the state has no right to look at the formula itself. The federal agency known as the TTB has that express function. But the editorial doesn’t like that fact, calling the alcohol industry “dangerous” — now who’s being disengenuous? — because, as they put it, the TTB “seems more interested in protecting so-called trade secrets than in helping the state of California regulate a dangerous industry.” Oh, now suddenly it’s about “regulating” the industry. See here I thought they were trying to extract taxes from the FMB manufacturers. Please.

So on Tuesday, the BOE voted 3-2 to request that FMB manufacturers hand over their formulas, even though the Feds have already reviewed and approved them. But the agenda is revealed in the editorial’s last sentence, naturally. “California’s congressional delegation needs to ask federal regulators why they’re siding with these manufacturers instead of public health and the state’s fiscal interest.” And just a paragraph before it was all about regulating the “dangerous” industry. Now, it’s about money. Oh, and the trumped up claim of “public health,” the slightly classier version of “it’s for the kids” argument that’s ubiquitous in the New Drys’ quiver of propaganda.

I’m pretty tired of these arguments, but here goes, again. Yes, California is in the throes of an economic crisis, just like most other states and our federal government, too. But that does not mean it’s appropriate to target one industry to foot the bill. If the state needs more money — and it does — then that burden should be shouldered by all of us, equally. Period. And the “public health” interest is supposedly all about not wanting underage kids to drink FMBs. Well, unless I missed something, it’s already illegal for them to do so, just like it’s illegal for people under 21 to drink beer, wine or liquor. This is an issue of enforcing current laws. Period. The New Drys’ stated agenda for raising the taxes on FMBs is to make them more expensive for teens to buy, which in their collective mind means that it will reduce consumption among our state’s youth. It’s a deeply flawed strategy, and punishes virtually everyone along the supply chain, from manufacturer to adult consumer.

In the end, for me the most troubling aspect of these propagandist editorials is that the reason most neo-prohibitionists want to remove alcohol from society is on moral grounds. That’s the root reason, though getting there is couched in the typical rhetoric of protecting children and society from harm. I could accept the moral arguments if I felt that the tactics used were themselves moral, but they’re not. It’s very hard for me to have someone lecture me about morals through propaganda that spreads lies and falsehoods to further a supposedly “moral” cause, freely using an “ends justify the means” approach. To me, that’s the very definition of disingenuous and deceptive.


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