Time to reclassify malt liquor and flavored malt beverages as a “distilled spirit?”

Ten years ago, Harlem community activists and Bill Perkins, Harlem’s representative to the New York City Council, led a successful campaign to rid Harlem of malt liquor ads that they calledpornographic and disrespectful(1). Several years earlier, legal action had forced malt liquor advertisers to remove similar ads. In the ensuing decades, activists launched comparable campaigns against the advertising and distribution of malt liquor in Portland, Oregon; Chicago; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C. and many other cities, often in the African-American neighborhoods targeted by malt liquor manufactures.

Now, major U.S. breweries are facing declining revenues due to decreased demand for mass market product lines such as Budweiser and a trend toward increased wine consumption and specialty and imported beers (2,3). For the beer industry, young consumers who have not yet established brand and drink preferences are an obvious target for the more aggressive marketing of malt liquor products (2,3).

This story of marketing malt liquor and the resistance to it illustrates some of the ways that free markets can collide with public health. It also demonstrates both the potential and limits of community activism to resist the promotion of unhealthy products. ThisCorporations and Health Watchreport summarizes the health risks associated with malt liquor consumption and describes the marketing of newer flavored malt liquors and caffeinated energy malt liquors to young people. It reviews actions by community activists to restrict the sale and advertisement of malt liquor products in low-income urban communities, and concludes with policy recommendations designed to better protect young people from the risks associated with malt liquor.

The most common malt liquor beverages are produced by the major U.S. brewing companies. These include beverages produced by Miller Brewing Company (Olde English 800 and Mickey’s), Pabst Brewing Company (St. Ides and Colt 45), Anheuser-Busch (King Cobra and Hurricane), and SABMiller (Steel Reserve). Newer products includeFMBs(Flavored Malt Beverages) ormalternativessuch asHard Lemonade,and other malt liquors with added flavors and sweeteners that appeal to younger adults and teens.

Malt liquor is a type of beer that has artificially high alcohol content, produced by adding sugar, corn, rice, dextrose or other adjuncts. The resulting alcoholic beverage is too strong to be legally labeled asbeer,and so it is labeled asmalt liquor.Beers typically have an alcohol content of around 5% by volume, whereas malt liquor has an alcohol content of 6 to 11% alcohol by volume. Malt liquor, which is typically a very pale amber color, tends to lack the bitterness associated with many types of beer because it is produced without hops. Flavored malt beverages are produced in the same manner as malt liquor, but with several additional steps to remove the color and flavors typically associated with beer and malt liquor. The result is a potent, flavorless alcoholic base that manufacturers combine with candy-like flavors and coloring, then market with youth-oriented advertisements.

The public health case against malt liquor

Objections to street corner distribution of 40 ounces

Most malt liquor advertisements urge young men to adopt amasculineidentity by consuming large quantities of potent alcohol in a single sitting, a pattern of consumption that increases the risk for excessive alcohol intake and alcohol dependency (4). In a study funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the University of Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions found that malt liquor users were more likely to smoke marijuana when they drink and to consume dangerous levels of alcohol (5). Due to the high alcohol concentration and super-sized bottles, a drinker who downs one or two 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor could be consuming the equivalent of up to 14 standard drinks in one sitting (5).

Another objection is the low cost and ready availability in small groceries in minority neighborhoods (6), stores that often ignore laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol to minors. The high density of these outlets also make them more difficult to police. A 40-ounce bottle, commonly referred to as a40,sells for less than $2, often at a price as low as 99 cents. Because malt liquor is classified as beer, many small grocery vendors are permitted to sell the product and the product is taxed at a lower rate than wine and spirits.

Currently under review by the Tax and Trade Bureau, the division of the U.S. Treasury Department that regulates malt liquor labeling, is a proposal that would allow for the advertisement of malt liquor based on potency (7). Such advertisement of malt liquor is currently prohibited, out of concern that breweries will engage instrength warsusing advertising designed to win over young drinkers with the high potency of their brews (7,8).

In sum, the industry’s marketing plans make a potent and potentially dangerous product readily available at affordable prices in our most disadvantaged communities. The alcohol industry then aggressively markets the products to young men, using sexual images that imply consumption enhances masculinity.

Objections tokiddie boozeandgirlie drinks,also known asalcopops

Another marketing strategy also raises concerns for health professionals. Recently, the alcohol industry has added caffeine, guarana, ginseng, and energy-producing claims to malt liquor products, in addition to flavoring malt liquors and test marketing fruit-flavored malt liquorshots.Flavored malt liquors such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade, a lemon-flavored malt alcoholic beverage made by a producer in Canada, are popular with teens and young adults, especially girls. This gender-specific product design and marketing is making malt liquors an equal opportunity substance, increasing the likelihood that both genders are at risk of malt liquor’s harm.

Groups such as the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the International Institute for Alcohol Awareness, the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest have taken issue with marketing practices associated with malt liquor and the over-saturation of the market withkiddie boozeflavored malt beverages and advertisements (9-14). The American Medical Association has commissioned a survey of underage girls, finding that a third of all girls older than 12 have triedgirlie drinksoralcopopsand that teenage girls report drinking alcohol more often than their male counterparts (9). Alcopops is a term used to describe sweetened malt beverages and other sweetened alcoholic drinks. In their paperGirlie Drinks. . . Women’s Diseases,the American Medical Association warns young girls that manufactures use thesweet fruity flavorof thesestarter drinksto appeal to young girls (9), and the Marin Institute credits the increased availability and marketing of inexpensivealcopopsto increased female consumption of alcohol (15).

Due to pressure exerted by national substance abuse prevention organizations, numerous state attorneys general, and public interest groups, Anheuser-Busch ultimately agreed to stop the marketing of its Spykes product line in May 2007 (16-18). Spykes, which were 12% alcohol by volume, were sold within arm’s reach of many cash registers in grocery stores and delis for under $2. Sold in flavors such as spicy mango, hot chocolate, hot melon, and spicy lime, the product was designed for young girls and teens who do not like the taste of hard alcohol and beer, as a product that could be taken either as ashotor added to beer or vodka to mask the taste of alcohol with sweet, fruity flavor. Pam Erickson of the Oregon Partnership applauded the effort noting,From the beginning, we thought this product was aimed at underage drinkers and thanks to others who thought the same thing, it’s now gone(19).

Similar victories were reached back in 1997 with the wave of protest that resulted from the introduction of frozen malt liquors such as St. Ide’s Freeze and Squeeze. At that time, then Mayor Rudy Giuliani, civic and church groups, local borough presidents, and the New York City commissioner of consumer affairs united against small stores selling fruit-flavored frozen malt liquor to children and teens (20-24).

Community struggles against 40 ounce malt liquor

Activists in urban communities of color have long battled for restrictions on the sale of malt liquor, as they struggled with high rates of violence and substance abuse in their communities. Community activists have called for numerous measures, including restrictions on advertising, higher taxes, and better policing of sales to minors. Some groups have urged filmmakers and rap artists to end their promotion of malt liquor. In their desire to target young African Americans, malt liquor makers have hired such artists as LL Cool J, DJ Quik, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, E-40, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eric B & Rakim, EPMD, Wu-Tang Clan, and the Geto Boys to promote their products.

Community activists have also charged that the sale of malt liquor encourages public drunkenness, loitering, urinating in public, and littering. Some research shows that malt liquor 40s are the beverage of choice for many homeless adults and unemployed adults (25), as well as teens (4). Single malt liquor sales are currently prohibited in the state of Florida, and community residents in Washington, D.C. were recently successful in banning the sale ofsinglesin several communities. These coalitions were led by politicians such as Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (Democrat) and Councilman Tommy Wells (Democrat) and by community groups such as the South Columbia Heights Neighborhood Association and the Anacostia Coordinating Committee, where many residents had long complained about theoversaturation of liquor-selling establishments and the impact they’ve had on neighborhoods(26-28).

In Philadelphia, when Colt 45 malt ads began to appear on city buses and trains, residents immediately complained and the ads were removed in August 2007. Councilmember Jim Kenney complained about the ads, notingpeople have been fighting these take-out beer delis for years now(29). As in Harlem, the victories in controlling malt liquor promotion in one setting or time are often difficult to sustain, requiring activists to maintain vigilance and be ready to take on new products or advertising campaigns.

In Portland, Oregon, neighborhood activists concerned about underage and binge drinking protested a billboard advertisement for 40-ounce bottles of Olde English malt liquor. According to Carl Flipper of the Humboldt Neighborhood Target Association, the billboard showedgang members in the ‘hood having a good time drinking large containers of beer.As a result of the protests, Miller discontinued their plans for 44 billboard ads but continues to run local radio, TV and print media ads. The company refused to take any responsibility for youth drinking in a statement, writing,We aren’t responsible for all the drinking problems in your community(30).

Other African American coalitions have protested the sale of malt liquor in 40s calling itliquid crack,with members of the Citizen Reform Action Committee in Philadelphia urging manufacturers of 40s to fund anti alcohol abuse messages (31). In Chicago, an African American Catholic priest named Father Michael Pfleger has generated headlines time and again for his efforts to protect his parishioners from tobacco, alcohol, drugs and gang violence (32). With his 1983 Battle of the Billboards Campaign,he and parishioners counted 118 alcohol and tobacco billboards within a 10-block radius of the parish. He was arrested several times for destruction of property when he took part in whitewashing or removing the billboards. His actions did contribute to ending the distribution of Powermaster, a potent malt liquor sold in African American communities.

A new market for the traditional 40-ounce?

While malt liquor advertisers have traditionally targeted African American communities, the search for new markets continues. On its website, Pabst promotes Colt 45, sayingIt has become an urban American icon. If you’re looking for a thick 40, or an ice cold shorty, Colt 45 is the malt liquor that works EVERYTIMETM!Pabst encourages readers to visit their new website designed for whitehipstersand where they can create their own tales of Colt 45 on paper bags (www.talesofcolt45.com) (33,34).

The case for tighter regulation According to a recent Advertising Age commentary, the new ad campaign is part of an effort to revive the Colt 45 brand, once viewed as anexploitative product that preyed on the urban poorand make it anedgy choice for young hipsterswith creative graphics drawn on brown paper bags (35). On the same website, Pabst adds,A big part of our promise is to be responsible—and we trust that you’ll do the same.

Public health lawyers have sought, so far without success, to reclassify sugary sweet alcopops and flavored malt beverages from their current classification as a beer to a distilled spirit, a category that allows higher taxes (8). Such measures would increase the cost of the products, making them less appealing to young teens, as well as remove them from the shelves of thousands of retail outlets not permitted to sell wines and spirits. By reclassifying malt liquor and flavored malt beverages as distilled spirits, these potent alcoholic beverages would be sold only in establishments licensed to sell distilled spirits. Such a reclassification would reduce young people’s access to alcoholic beverages, thereby reducing underage drinking, drunk driving, and the adverse health consequences associated with alcoholism and alcohol abuse. Other measures designed to reduce the harm from malt liquor include restrictions on outdoor advertisements for alcohol and restrictions on advertisements for alcoholic beverages in youth-oriented magazines and television programs.

For public health professionals and advocates, the story of malt liquor shows how declining profits and the quest for increased market share can push industry to act in ways that threaten public health. While community activism has played an important role in curbing this promotion of malt liquor, the fact that these mobilizations have persisted for more than 25 years, often being forced to re-emerge to defend previous victories, suggests the limits of this approach. In the long run, only government agencies that have the backbone and the resources to fulfill their mandates can ensure that special interests don’t threaten the health of the public.


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