Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2007 | Patty Drieslein’s daughter hadn’t told her anything about her first sexual experience.

Aside from the expected discomfort teenagers have with talking to parents about sexual matters, Patty’s daughter was especially reluctant to talk about something she’d much rather forget.

When she was 15 years old, two adult men, ages 19 and 23, invited her and her 14-year-old girlfriend to a house in Santee. There, the men plied the two underage girls with Mike’s Hard Lemonade until they passed out.

When they woke up the next day, they discovered they were victims of date rape.

Patty’s daughter, who waited until she was a 21 to relay this story to her mother, said that she and her friend continued to drink because they liked the taste and because Mike’s Hard Lemonade didn’t have any of the harshness of regular alcohol. It just tasted like a fruity soda.

The alcohol industry refers to drinks like Mike’s Hard Lemonade as “flavored malt beverages” (FMBs) or  “Malternatives,” but they’re also known as “Alcopops,” “Girlie Drinks,” “Cheerleader Beer” or “Gateway Drinks” because of their appeal to young women and girls. Ten years ago there were fewer than 10 of these products in the market. Today, over 150 versions are sold.

They contain about 5 percent to 7 percent alcohol — more than most beers.

According to surveys, teenage girls are the targeted market for these drinks. Fifty-one percent of teenage girls surveyed said they had seen alcopops advertising. The same was true for only 34 percent of adult women over 21.

About a third of girls over 12 have tried alcopops; a quarter have either gotten behind the wheel of a car while under the influence of alcopops or have been driven by someone under the influence of alcopops.

In a disturbing American Medical Association survey, one in six teenage girls reported being sexually active after drinking alcopops.

You have probably seen alcopops around. They come in bright packaging that make them look like fruit-flavored sodas or sports drinks to unwary parents, retail clerks or underage consumers. They come in fun flavors like lemonade, raspberry and tropical mango; some are even caffeinated with names like “Spark,” “Charge” and “Torque.”

While they’re packaged to look like everything they’re not, alcopops are a concoction of hard liquor and sweet flavorings intended to disguise the taste of alcohol — a quality that the industry admits is especially appealing to younger drinkers.

In a restaurant industry article, Trish Rohrer, brand development manager for the Boston Beer Company, said: “With younger drinkers, their palates haven’t quite matured yet to drinks like bourbon. Malternatives are a sweeter drink, they’re easier to drink and it takes less time to mature to the taste.”

The industry has consistently tried to conceal the distilled alcoholic content of these products from the state’s lawmakers and regulators, a strategy that has allowed them to be taxed at a significantly lower rate that keeps them cheap and accessible to underage drinkers.

They do this by employing a little sleight of hand in the manufacturing process. Starting with a beer base, they reduce it to nearly water by removing the beer taste and alcoholic content. Then they take this non-alcoholic denatured beer end-product and add hard liquor mixed with flavoring.

The hard liquor — not the beer — provides the alcoholic content.

Yet the industry argues that, because these drinks start their lives as beer, they should be taxed as a beer.

But state law does not equivocate on the definition of “distilled spirits,” which include any beverages with dilutions or mixtures of hard alcohol.

Last week, California’s Board of Equalization finally had enough and decided to tax these products as distilled spirits in alignment with existing state law. This move will return about $40 million of lost revenue to the state each year.

In Europe, increasing the taxes on these products has been successful in pricing them out of reach of underage consumers. When Germany increased the tax on these drinks, teenage consumption dropped by 50 percent.

While taxation is one important component in reducing underage consumption of these products, accessibility is another. The state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which regulates where these products can be sold, also needs to appropriately classify alcopops as distilled spirits. This move would reduce access by removing them from the shelves of California’s more than 10,000 convenience stores.

The California Legislature also needs to adopt proposed measures that would require the appropriate labeling of alcopops as alcoholic beverages and use the recaptured tax income from these beverages for funding underage drinking prevention programs.

Top law enforcement officials have now taken on the issue of alcopops and underage drinking. Thirty states’ attorneys general, including Jerry Brown of California, have written to the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to request a review of the federal classification of these products.

But, because they face losing an important tool for cultivating new drinkers, the alcohol industry will not hesitate to use its deep pockets to pressure state and federal lawmakers and regulators against any changes in taxation, labeling or access. The best defense against their powerful influence is for legislators, law enforcement, drinking-prevention advocates and parents to remain vigilant, confront the industry forcefully, talk with our children, and continue to educate the public.

Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña (D-San Diego) is author of AB 345, which would require the recovered tax revenue from alcopops to be used for underage drinking prevention programs. She is also the joint author of AB 346, which would require appropriate labeling of flavored malt beverages. Agree with her? Disagree? Send a letter to the editor.

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