Maryland Can’t Afford NOT to Overhaul its State Alcohol Regulatory Authority

Last year, bipartisan legislation created the Task Force to Study State Alcohol Regulation, Enforcement, Safety, and Public Health, comprised of health-related officials and advocates, law enforcement, a member of a liquor board, legislators, and representatives from all levels of the alcoholic beverage industry in our state.

Each person was chosen by the respective entity to bring their expertise to the table. The recommendations to come out of this task force in the form of the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Motor Fuel Commission bill (HB1052/SB703) were supported by the majority as reasonable and necessary to improve our regulatory structure.

We learned from the task force meetings that we had shared values in protecting both consumers and non-consumers and in supporting an important part of the state’s economy. There are over 1,200 annual alcohol-related deaths in Maryland; this is not an acceptable cost of doing business, and everyone welcomes appropriate enforcement of existing regulations combined with the additional recommendations to reduce this number. There was also bipartisan agreement that alcohol is not an ordinary commodity like laundry detergent, drills or bread, and as such, it is regulated differently.

Raimee Eck, president of the Maryland Public Health Association

The chief regulator’s role is to collect taxes, ensure the products coming into or being crafted within the state are safe, ensure the rules as created by the state and local legislative bodies are being enforced to the fullest, be an informed and responsive resource to the jurisdictions tasked with local authority, and assist the public in being fully aware of the product itself and its economic, human, and social impact.

Creating a healthy and balanced marketplace for alcohol requires appropriate controls and oversight. The current regulatory system in Maryland, with an elected official regulating the alcohol industry, is at odds with best practices, and the regulatory structure across most other states. The new commission with an executive director will create the least disruption to the system both economically and structurally, while drawing on the strengths of Maryland’s significant expertise in health, economics, and industry.

This commission is ideally situated for the tasks of educating the public on alcohol and improving reporting requirements between police, local liquor boards, and the state regulatory authority. It will enhance training for liquor inspectors, for whom there are currently no requirements, and will mandate all servers, sellers, and managers of alcohol establishments be trained in responsible beverage service. It would also promote innovative, yet simple, ways to improve enforcement activities using technology and data to target outlets that need it the most and streamline resource utilization.

The harms associated with the enjoyment of alcohol are costly and are borne by all of us in the form of health care, criminal, and social costs, whether one consumes alcohol or not. And this is the crux of why we regulate it so closely and carefully. It’s estimated that from 2006-2010, the latest figures available, excessive alcohol consumption cost the state approximately $5 billion.

This commission is not a new direction for Maryland; the state recently created commissions to oversee the regulation of gambling and cannabis. These commissions signal to residents a commitment to the safety and well-being for all. Whatever the motivation, whether health, economic or safety, Marylanders deserve better and the opportunity for change is now.

— Raimee Eck

The writer is president of the Maryland Public Health Association.

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