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Task force reviewing Md.’s liquor laws vows to examine health risks

Bryan P. Sears//September 12, 2018

Task force reviewing Md.’s liquor laws vows to examine health risks

By Bryan P. Sears

//September 12, 2018

A task force appointed by the General Assembly to review the state’s liquor laws has begun its work. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

ANNAPOLIS — A panel some thought would target Comptroller Peter Franchot’s oversight of segments of the alcohol industry could also be looking at other aspects of the state’s highly regulated industry.

Lawmakers say the foundation of Maryland’s expansive liquor laws — Article 2B in legislative parlance — and its tiered system of manufacturers, distributors, and retailers is unlikely to change. A new task force created by the legislature, meeting for the first time Wednesday, heard extensive testimony on public health concerns related to alcohol use in Maryland and the need to continue that control. And it raised the specter of taxes as a means to those ends.

“Every year we have hundreds of bills on the alcohol industry,” said Del. Warren Miller, R-Howard and Carroll. “I think there is a very real public health component to alcohol regulation.”

Miller is a cosponsor of the legislation that created the Task Force to Study State Alcohol Regulation, Enforcement, Safety and Public Health, which met for the first time Wednesday. The group plans to meet three more times in the coming weeks before developing a set of recommendations.

Miller said the three-tier system is not in danger.

“Not from this task force,” Miller said. “Over the last two years, certainly the three-tier system has been drastically changed.”

The task force was created by legislation sponsored by Miller and Del. Ben Kramer, D-Montgomery. At the time, the comptroller and others characterized the panel as a group intent on punishing Franchot for being an outspoken advocate on the craft beer industry and engaging in a contentious debate with lawmakers that sprawled from the committee rooms and halls of Annapolis to the mean streets of social media.

“I was recently attacked on social media saying that in the bill hearing on the comptroller’s (Reform on Tap) bill I wanted to put Maryland brewers out of business,” said Miller. “From day one it has been nothing by mischaracterizations regarding this entire task force. I think we have a very serious job to play.”

Miller said part of the job for the committee will be to look at the role the comptroller has in the industry and the way other states do it, but the panel’s review also will include an examination of how changes have affected public health.

Alcoholic beverages are distributed in Maryland through a three-tiered system of manufacturers, distributors and retailers. The system traces its roots to Dec. 5, 1933, when Prohibition ended and the General Assembly passed new alcohol  control laws meant to promote temperance and limit consumption.

Maryland’s comptroller is responsible for enforcing state laws on manufacturers and distributors while local county governments oversee retailers.

Miller said over the last 15 years there has been an annual effort to chip away at those laws and expand access to alcohol licenses or laws expanding the wine industry. Miller said those changes “have had nothing to do with the comptroller,” whom he said has had little to do with policy.

“We are certainly seeing bills every year that attempt to relax our regulatory framework,” said Miller.

Over the last two years, the focus of legislative efforts has been on craft brewers and what some advocates, including the comptroller, have said are arcane and antiquated laws that stifle new startups and new industries.

Raimee Eck, president of the Maryland Public Health Association and a researcher at the Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth, told the panel to “take time to consider the broader (public health) policy as part of the law. Don’t just call something antiquated.”

Len Foxwell, chief of staff to the comptroller, questioned the direction of the task force and whether punishing Franchot was the only goal.

“I only know what I heard and I don’t know what to think,” said Foxwell, noting that none of the testimony over two hours directly criticized the comptroller’s office on alcohol enforcement or tax collection. “During the session I would have told you this task force was about getting another chance to shoot spitballs at the comptroller. Now I would believe there is something bigger going on.”

Foxwell said based on testimony from public health researchers that the goal of some “is to dramatically if not wholly restrict access to alcoholic beverages.”

In testimony, David Jernigan, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, presented data to members of the task force tying alcohol to increased crime and homicides in Baltimore as well as opioid-related deaths and other social and health problems, increased reports of alcohol poisoning since 2010 and alcohol-related deaths.

“I call these the canaries in the coal mine,” Jernigan told the panel.

Jernigan was part of a successful effort nearly a decade ago to increase taxes on alcohol. He said higher alcohol taxes can be an important component of controlling access to liquor.

Miller said taxes are unlikely to be part of the recommendations but acknowledged some issues could spin off from the committee for later review.

“That’s not our purview,” Miller said. “We’ve raised our taxes a few years ago and what we find is that people go to other states.”

Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Brewers Association of Maryland, said he was taking a wait-and-see approach to the task force and what it might mean for craft brewers.

“It’s just too soon to see where this lands,” Atticks said.



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