March 10, 2006

Commentary:

Underage Drinking, San Diego Responds to the Wake Up Call

By Senator Liz Figueroa

Underage drinking leads to thousands of deaths and serious injuries in California each year. It is a leading cause of car crashes, suicide, sexual assaults, gang violence and problems at school and at home resulting in an estimated cost to state taxpayers of $7.5 billion a year.

San Diego County has a history of community involvement when it comes to educating the public about the perils of underage drinking. As Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, I chose to refocus the spotlight from Sacramento and our state capitol — where there is a huge legislative and legal battle brewing over popular alcohol drinks – to a community that is responding aggressively towards curb youth drinking.

Today’s (March 10), day long hearing at the San Diego County Administration Building will focus on the causes, effects and preventative measures relevant to youth drinking including the growing popularity of flavored malt beverages, commonly known as Alcopops.

These soda-like, sweet, fruity drinks, such as — Smirnoff Ice, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Bacardi Silver, Seagram’s Coolers, Jack Daniel’s County Coolers, Zima, Sky Blue and Lynchburg Lemonade – have become the choice of drink for underage drinkers, especially for young girls.

Studies show that 16 percent of 8th grade girls; and 25 percent of 10th grade girls are drinking Alcopops. Many senior high school girls are following the footsteps of college sisters by becoming weekend binge drinkers.

Though these types of drinks begin their manufacturing process with a beer base, all beer product is removed and hard liquor is added. Most contain the same level of alcohol as one straight shot of booze. Not only is the alcohol taste masked by their sweet, soda pop taste, it appears Alcopops packaging is designed to catch the attention of young people.

Beside the fact that more and more kids are drinking Alcopops and even though they contain distilled alcohol, California classifies them as a beer product and the alcohol industry is fighting to keep it that way.

By allowing Alcopops to be sold as beer they are cheaper and more available. They are sold in more than 15,000 convenience stores and mini-marts that typically are located in residential neighborhoods where teens often congregate and can be advertised on television, the most persuasive means of marketing.

Beside all the industry’s marketing strategies and advantages, California is taking a substantial hit due to lost tax revenue. Beer is taxed at .20 cents a gallon compared to $3.30 a gallon for hard liquor. This tax loss is costing California an estimated $40 million each year, money that could be used for health and safety related efforts.

That’s the bad news. On the positive side, I am a principle co-author of two legislative proposals that will help curb youth drinking. Senate Bill 1180 (Migden) addresses the current marketing practices and Assembly Bill 2013 (Saldana) will re-classify the drinks for what they truly are, distilled spirits and allow the state to tax them accordingly. In addition, a statewide coalition of community advocates has filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control Board to legally force the reclassification which I fully support.

California must fight the industries’ attempt to keep the status quo and follow San Diego’s example of aggressively addressing underage drinking. For the sake of our youth, we need to do as much as we can to take Alcopops out of the easy reach of kids. Protecting our youth, not the narrow economic interest of Alcopop makers, should be the state’s top priority in determining how best to regulate and tax these products.

Senator Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont) represents the Senate 10th District.

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