A bill that would remove so-called "alcohol-pop" from grocery and convenience store shelves and allow the flavored malt beverages to only be sold in state liquor stores was approved Friday by a Senate committee.
SB211, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R- Provo, passed the Senate Health and Human Services Committee 3-1 and now goes to the full Senate for further consideration.
Bramble said the beverages "really are the equivalent of a mixed drink" and should be available only in state liquor stores, just like liquor and wine. He said they've been sold alongside 3.2 percent beer in grocery and convenience stores because of a loophole in the law.
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who has led the push to limit the availability of "alcohol-pops," told the committee that although the beverages are fermented like beer, much of their alcoholic content comes from distilled spirits used as flavoring.
Shurtleff and others said the beverages are marketed at underage drinkers, especially girls who don't like the taste of beer, and are deliberately packaged and flavored to look and taste like soda pop.
Dr. George Van Komen, chairman of the Utah Alcohol Policy Coalition, said the beverages "are teaching our kids how to drink alcohol" and called them "alcohol on training wheels." He said liquor stores were a "much better regulated environment" than grocery or convenience stores.
But representatives of both the product distributors and the places that flavored malt beverages are sold argued that steps are already taken to avoid sales to minors, including requiring a birth date of a purchaser to be entered into a cash register before a sale can be completed.
Jim Olsen, president of the Utah Food Industry Association, said while sales of flavored malt beverages in the state have been declining since 2000, some 13.5 million bottles and cans are still sold annually. State liquor stores, he said, cannot accommodate the same selection or quantity now available.
He said prices will also be higher in state liquor stores because liquor taxes are higher. Additionally, Utah would be the first state to restrict flavored malt beverages only to liquor stores.
A lobbyist for the Utah Beer Wholesalers Association, Mike Sonntag, said the products represent about 4 percent of the association members' sales statewide. The economic impact of losing about 4 percent of those sales, he said, is "at least 30 or more jobs."
Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, cast the only vote against the bill. McCoy said moving the beverages out of grocery and convenience stores to limit access to underage drinkers was "basically the nuclear option." He questioned why other proposals, such as restricting advertising weren't' considered first.
McCoy also said he had trouble understanding why supporters of the bill weren't also advocating removing 3.2 percent beer from grocery and convenience stores since the lower-alcohol beer has the same amount of alcohol as the flavored malt beverages.
Malisa Troutwine, who called herself a stay-at-home mother from Lehi, tried to sway the committee to vote against the bill by passing out homemade cookies that included almond and vanilla extracts, which contain a high percentage of alcohol.Troutwine said she and other women who enjoy the drinks will have a harder time buying them, too, because they'll have to go to a state liquor store and accepted a more limited and more expensive selection. She said the state already has enough "quirky" liquor laws.
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