An aggressive legislative package proposed by New Mexico Attorney General Gary King to fight underage drinking includes banning alcoholic energy drinks, classifying and taxing flavored malt beverages as liquor products, and allowing local communities to impose their own alcohol taxes.
“The alcohol industry wants everyone in society to absorb the cost of abuse of their products, but I think that it is not exceptional to ask the industry that provides the products to pay for some of the problems that their products cause,” said King. “If you're going to sell a product in society, and if you know there are significant health problems from your product, you should step up to the table and address the societal issues caused by your product.”
New Mexico historically has had some of the worst underage-drinking and drunk-driving problems in the country. According to a survey of high-school students by the New Mexico Department of Health, 43 percent of students are currently drinking alcohol. Of those drinking alcohol, more than half were classified as binge drinkers, and 31 percent had their first drink of alcohol before turning 13.
King has proposed a ban on “the manufacture, distribution and sale of flavored malt energy beverages containing stimulants” in New Mexico. King was among a group of state attorneys general who successfully pressured brewers Anheuser-Busch and Miller/Coors to drop alcoholic energy drinks from their product lineups last year.
King also proposed classifying flavored malt beverages — products like Mike's Hard Lemonade and Bacardi Breezers that critics say appeal to underage drinkers — as liquor rather than beer, asserting that the drinks be taxed as distilled spirits rather than beer. The bill calls for changing taxes on so-called alcopops from $0.41 per gallon (the beer rate) to $6.06 per gallon (the liquor rate) and using the $2 million in anticipated tax revenues to fund underage-drinking programs.
“Young people are very price conscious, so we indeed expect the price difference to impact consumption,” King said.
New Mexico is one of several states battling over the regulation of alcopops. Recently, alcohol lobbyists in Maryland helped bring down a bill restricting the sale of alcopops to establishments with distilled-spirits licenses. In California, lawmakers reclassified alcopops as spirits, only to watch alcohol makers dodge the increased tax by re-formulating the product. Nebraska is still awaiting official action from their Attorney General and Governor on a proposed rule to keep alcopops classified as beer.
A third piece of the legislative package proposed by King would allow New Mexico counties to impose an additional liquor excise tax and use a portion of the taxes to fund local addiction-treatment programs. King noted that McKinley County, which had the highest rate of alcohol-related problems in the United States between 1973 and 1992, increased alcohol taxes in 1989 and used the funds to establish and support a treatment center.
The county also saw a significant drop in its DUI rate after the taxes were increased.
Senator George Munoz, who introduced the county excise bill, is the former mayor of Gallup, the McKinley County seat and a city that has earned the dubious nickname “Drunk Town USA” as a result of its high DUI rates. “We know from McKinley County that if you collect a local surtax, then use it to provide treatment and prevention, that you can significantly decrease a lot of the bad side effects of the product,” King said.
However, King's legislative package was quickly tabled by state legislative committees, leaving the bill backers scurrying to amend and advance the measures before the end of the legislative session. The state's alcohol industry and some Republican lawmakers were among those who opposed the plan.
Rep. Keith Gardner, the minority whip in the state House, called the energy-drink legislation overbroad, contending that the definition could include products like Nyquil. Gardner also objected to King's billing of the measure as an underage-drinking bill.
Representative Ray Begaye, who introduced the energy-drink bill, said that members of the House Business & Industry Committee “didn't buy” research suggesting that alcoholic energy drinks are being marketed at early drinkers.
Both King and Begaye said they would be willing to work with committee members to amend the legislation if necessary. “We think we drafted it to the point where it does not include [products like Nyquil],” King said. “We can draft a new definition.”
Gardner also opposed the alcopops bill, saying that raising alcohol taxes to prevent underage drinking was “the biggest cop-out.”
“I think we need to enforce the current statutes that are in place,” such as laws prohibiting minors from selling or drinking alcohol, Gardner said.
“We're attacking the problem from the wrong direction,” he said. “I can tell you in my own community, we've had kids get caught and it's just a slap on the hand. I'm not saying we should throw the kids in jail, but there have to be real consequences, and they have to understand those consequences.”
King said he was “quite disappointed, but we're at least undaunted” about the stalled legislation. The attorney general's office is working with groups like the Santa Fe Underage Drinking Prevention Alliance to pressure lawmakers to approve the raft of legislation. Shelley Mann-Lev, chair of the Alliance, said her group will continue to organize community support for King's legislation if it does not pass during the current legislative session. “We recognize that this is a long-term project,” she said.
“I don't think most taxpayers realize the tremendous cost of alcohol in terms of DWI, underage drinking, emergency-room hospital costs, dropping out of school, unplanned pregnancies, suicides, and homicides,” said Glenn Wieringa, underage-drinking prevention program manager with the New Mexico Traffic Safety Bureau. “We have to do a better job of communicating the health conditions affected by alcohol. Over the course of the summer we'll do more voter education and let some of the constituents of these legislators know that these are important issues and that they just can't turn their backs on New Mexico youth.”