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Franchot misguided on Maryland alcohol policy

riibe-diane-byline-mugWe want to commend House Speaker Michael E. Busch for raising concerns over Comptroller Peter Franchot’s latest example of skirting his public duty to provide fair and balanced oversight of the regulation of alcohol in Maryland. We can unequivocally say it is, indeed, about the children. And it’s about their families and the communities in which they live.

We, too, take issue with the comptroller’s ongoing abdication of his responsibility to reasonably regulate the retail sale of alcohol. With the public health of Maryland families at stake, we agree that the General Assembly leadership is appropriate in raising the question whether Peter Franchot is able to serve in this critical role as chief alcohol regulator.

Long before the comptroller’s pro-industry task force on craft breweries, he appeared to be doing the bidding of the alcohol industry to expand alcohol sales in the state to the detriment of Marylanders’ health, safety and general well-being.

In fact, there’s a paper trail connecting the comptroller to illegal campaign finance contributions (as documented by The Daily Record, The Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun) from some of the most powerful alcohol industry players in the country and to conducting unscientific polling to push his agenda, “a world without limits” for craft breweries in Maryland. The comptroller seems to have fallen victim to the industry’s deep pockets, becoming what’s known as a captive regulator who has lost sight of a balanced approach that’s critical to regulating a product that can cause great harm.

Flawed from beginning

The “Reform on Tap” task force was flawed from its inception with an agenda driven exclusively by the alcohol industry under the guise of economic development. Other states have taken to similar task force reviews of their alcohol laws, like in Massachusetts and Indiana, for example. At least in these states they had representation by alcohol policy stakeholders, including public health researchers and professionals, in recognition that alcohol is not an ordinary commodity and impacts the health and safety of communities.

In response to Busch’s question on whether the authority vested in the comptroller’s office to regulate alcohol is replicated in other states: Yes, there are states where the alcohol regulation is housed under the financial office, such as a state Department of Revenue. However, this only exists for the purposes of collecting alcohol taxes and licensing fees. The state’s Chief Financial Officer has little or no direct involvement with the development and oversight of alcohol regulation. Instead, that responsibility is typically a function of state alcohol agencies or local liquor control boards that are staffed by people who have expertise in such duties.

Franchot’s hands-on involvement advocating for the expansion of alcohol sales and consumption seems to be unprecedented for someone in his position.

This extraordinary focus on expanding alcohol sales – while ignoring the concerns of many in the state who don’t think a bar, brewery, or liquor store on every corner is needed – exemplifies gross disregard on the part of an elected state official. Guiding principles to alcohol regulation are outlined by the Community Preventive Services Task Force, an independent, nonfederal panel of public health and prevention experts that reviews the totality of current research. It recommends regulating alcohol outlet density, maintaining limits on days and hours of alcohol sales, and discourages the removal of government control of retail sales as effective measures to prevent excessive alcohol consumption.

Ignoring science

Despite the science, the comptroller has repeatedly taken an anti-public health approach to alcohol regulation and has, in the past, actively attacked state-controlled liquor control departments in efforts to dismantle an effective form of control. He continues these same tactics by advocating for the end of Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control in favor of handing over alcohol sales and distribution to the private sector contrary to science-based best practice.

Franchot’s actions point to a refusal to acknowledge this clear science, including research on the association between increased alcohol outlets and increased alcohol consumption and violent crime. Frankly, this perilous disregard for the science puts Maryland residents at great risk of harm.

Finally, it is disconcerting that the comptroller and his alcohol industry backers insult Maryland citizens and General Assembly members by attempting to push dangerous changes through the legislative process. We challenge Marylanders to not let the wool be pulled over their eyes, and we encourage a conversation on alcohol regulation that is rooted first and foremost in the strong evidence that the comptroller seems so willing to ignore at the expense of health and safety. We urge Marylanders to say no to Franchot’s industry-dominated, short-sighted and dangerous agenda.

Diane Riibe is chairwoman of the board of directors for the U.S. Alcohol Policy Alliance, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization of local and state coalitions seeking to translate alcohol policy research into public health practice to prevent and reduce alcohol-related harm.

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