Spirit of the Law


A new lawsuit demands that California's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control reclassify sweet malt beverages such as Mike's Hard Lemonade and Zima as distilled spirits instead of beer. The San Jose Mercury-News reports that such a move would force the state to "limit their sales, tax them at a higher rate and prohibit the drinks from being advertised on television." (Does California restrict TV ads for alcohol? Nationally, there is no legal ban on TV commercials for liquor, just an industry tradition that has gone by the boards in recent years.) Presumably the argument for calling malt beverages distilled spirits is that most of the alcohol in these drinks typically comes from the distilled ethanol base of added flavorings, rather than the wort fermentation that produces the alcohol in beer. Still, the strength of "alcopops" is similar to that of beer (around 5 percent, vs. 40 percent or so for distilled spirits), so similar regulatory treatment makes sense from that perspective.

The real objection of the activists who filed the suit is not to the origin of the ethanol but to the taste, which they think makes these products dangerously appealing to minors. According to this line of thinking, it is unconscionable to produce an alcoholic beverage that teenagers like, even if there is a substantial market for it among adults. Rather than say this directly, critics of "alcopops" pretend they're worried about deceptive marketing:

Former San Francisco City Attorney Louise Renne, a lawyer with Public Law Group, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the youth advocates, said that by allowing the beverages to be sold as beer all over California, the state is contributing to underage drinking.

Some of the drinks, she said, have been positioned in stores next to Snapple bottles.

"Parents may even be inadvertently buying these drinks for their youngsters,"' she said, "not realizing that in fact these are distilled spirits."

Even if parents are too stupid to realize that products with names like Mike's Hard Lemonade, Bacardi Silver, and Jack Daniel's Country Cocktails might contain alcohol–despite hints such as "5.2% ALC/VOL" and the surgeon general's warning–they probably will realize their error pretty quickly, once their youngsters start stumbling around, slurring their words, and crashing their tricycles.

[Thanks to Geoff Segal for the tip.]