August 15, 2007 in Nation/World

California board votes to boost tax on ‘alcopop’

Nancy Vogel Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A group of California teenagers working to curb underage drinking scored a victory Tuesday when state officials voted to impose steep new taxes on sweet alcohol drinks such as Smirnoff Ice, Seagram’s Coolers, Bacardi Silver and Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

The Board of Equalization decided to treat flavored malt beverages as distilled spirits rather than as beer, which will boost taxes on a six-pack of the drinks by nearly $2.

“The ruling will send a signal to youth that these drinks are hard liquor because they have costs similar to hard liquor,” said board member Judy Chu, one of the three Democrats to vote for the change.

The “alcopop” drinks mimic lemonade, cola, fruit punch and other flavors. They don’t fit neatly into California’s alcohol classifications of beer, wine and distilled spirits.

Before the tax change can take effect, the state must gather information from the alcohol industry about the content of flavored malt beverages sold in California, board staff members said. That could take a year.

The 3-2 vote came eight months after a group of teenagers from around the state petitioned the board for the higher taxes.

“I was tired of seeing my peers drink these products,” said Jimmy Jordan, an 18-year-old from the Sacramento area, who helped draft the petition. “I was tired of seeing people drinking and doing dumb things.”

The vote changes the classification of the drinks, which are widely available, only in terms of taxes. The state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which licenses businesses that sell alcohol, still categorizes them as beer, which means they can be sold in 1,362 more stores and nearly 10,000 more restaurants than if the ABC considered them distilled spirits.

Current California regulations tax beer and wine at 20 cents a gallon and distilled spirits at $3.30 a gallon, so the new regulation would boost the tax on a 12-ounce bottle of flavored malt beverage from 2 cents to 31 cents.

Tax board staffers estimate that the change would generate an additional $41 million a year in taxes and reduce consumption of flavored malt beverages by children ages 12 to 18 by 14 percent.

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