Daine Riibe: Not a role for ABC

January 2, 2014 

As someone with decades of work leading community and policy efforts to address underage drinking and drunk driving, I was concerned to read your Dec. 11 editorial about the ABC’s efforts to secure scarce tax revenues to support its emerging underage drinking initiative.

The ABC’s concern in addressing underage drinking is admirable, but given its close alliance with the alcohol industry, is it really the appropriate group to take the lead on preventing underage drinking in North Carolina?

One life is lost each week in North Carolina due to underage drinking. Underage drinking is a public health crisis, and there is a serious need to address it in North Carolina and nationally. Our state is known for a top-notch network of community-based prevention efforts with professionals working diligently to translate the latest research into practice.

At a time when the state is cutting its support of public education and vital resources and services for the poor, it seems an imprudent and irresponsible time to use existing revenue to support such an initiative. If the desire of the commission is to make a difference, to move the marker on underage drinking, to save lives and ultimately state resources, there are steps it could take that would be both effective and within its purview.

First, it could close the tax loophole and properly classify flavored alcoholic beverages (alcopops) – such as Joose, Four Loko and Mike’s Hard Lemonade. These products are sweet spirits that are cheap, available and clearly targeted to the youngest drinkers, especially girls. Alcopops are classified by the ABC as a malt beverage when, in fact, they should be regulated as distilled spirits. The industry has fought hard to secure the lower malt beverage classification for alcopops in order to pay fewer taxes, but that’s not fair to North Carolina taxpayers who are footing the $1.5 billion bill for underage drinking each year.

North Carolina could save more than $7 million each year if the loophole were closed and these products properly classified, resulting in higher price and movement of the products into the ABC stores. The research is clear: Increased price on alcohol reduces consumption.

Next, the ABC could support an increase in penalties for businesses that sell alcohol to minors. Further, the commission should not support the use of coupons for alcohol.

North Carolina has long been regarded as a leader in the prevention of underage drinking and drunk driving. We should not support any plan to use existing state revenues to support the N.C. Alcohol Beverage Control Commission’s underage drinking initiative. We’re fortunate to have an ABC that is willing to be active on underage drinking, but if it actually wants to make a difference, the research is clear: increase price, reduce availability, support enforcement and address advertising. The commission can do all of these things without any legislative wrangling while generating much-needed revenue for the state.

Diane Riibe

Chapel Hill

The writer is chair of the US Alcohol Policy Alliance. The length limit was waived.

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