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Law would tag beer kegs to fight use by the young

Sunday, November 04, 2001

By Johnna A. Pro, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A statewide coalition of groups opposed to underage drinking wants lawmakers to act on legislation requiring beer distributors to put registration tags on all kegs they sell. That way, if the keg turns up at a party with drinkers younger than 21, police can trace its purchaser and cite him.

The proposed law, Senate Bill 222, which currently is on the agenda of the Law and Justice Committee, is similar to provisions adopted by 15 other states and the District of Columbia.

While it affects all adults who buy kegs, the proposed law is aimed at the 21-to-23-year-old crowd, particularly college students, who don't think twice about buying a keg or 10 for a weekend bash.

"It puts the responsibility back on the purchasers," said Felicity DeBacco-Erni, program director for Pennsylvanians Against Underage Drinking. "Do we think education is part of the solution? Absolutely. Is it the only answer? No."

To bring attention to the proposal, the coalition sponsored a rally in Harrisburg last month. In addition, coalition members are meeting individually with members of the Senate committee, where the legislation was introduced in January by Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, R-Montgomery. Lawmakers have debated similar proposals for the past several years.

Under current law, keg buyers must fill out a form that is kept by the beer distributor. The distributor must produce the form for liquor enforcement agents if asked.

The kegs themselves, however, generally have no markings to indicate who bought them or where they came from. So if police raid a party with underage drinkers, they can do little but confiscate the kegs, and no one can be charged with furnishing alcohol to a minor, a misdemeanor that carries a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail.

"Typically, when we find a keg and a few people standing around, nobody claims ownership," said Police Chief Lynn S. Rowe of Springfield, Mo., the home of Southwest Missouri State University. Springfield's city council recently adopted a keg-registration law.

"We're a college town. We find there are a lot of kids drinking who aren't supposed to be," Rowe said. "The law gives some accountability to whomever makes the initial purchase."

State Sen. Jane C. Orie, R-McCandless, who supports the measure, believes the proposed law would bring more accountability and tracking ability to Pennsylvania's system.

"On college campuses, for example, the kids who are over age, they're the ones who will be liable if they buy beer for underage drinkers."

Orie said she believed the committee could take up the legislation as early as this month.

"I think the rally put it back into focus," she said.

But despite renewed efforts to get the legislation moving, opposition is mounting from people who believe education and better enforcement of existing laws will help curb underage drinking.

Industry groups such as the Malt Beverage Distributors Association of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Beer Wholesalers Association oppose the legislation, as do individual distributors. What's more, even law enforcement officers in states where the law exists say it isn't a panacea.

"I would not put this on my list of the Top 10 things to do to stop underage drinking. I still think it's a good idea. It's just not on my short list of strategies," said Lincoln, Neb., Police Chief Tom Casady, who testified in favor of keg registration in Nebraska in 1993. Since then, Casady has come to believe its impact has been minimal at best.

"You can always get your beer in cans or bottles," he said.

Terry Wagner, the sheriff of Lancaster County, Neb., the rural area outside the city of Lincoln, said he had used the law occasionally to cite people who provide the kegs for underage drinkers. But as he and deputies have found out, college students don't let registration stop them from partying.

Wagner's deputies broke up a college party last summer at which beer was being stored in the back of a truck -- 180 cases of it. They could do little but shut down the event and confiscate the beer.

"We were never able to find out who bought it. Believe me, I got many calls from many of my friends offering suggestions about what to do with it," Wagner said. In the end, the beer was sold and the money donated to a food pantry.

Opponents in Pennsylvania argue that the law is impractical because it adds another layer to Pennsylvania's myriad liquor regulations and that it's an inconvenience to sellers and buyers.

What's more, they say, nothing prevents someone from pulling the sticker off the keg, and the proposed law doesn't take into account wine or liquor.

Finally, they say, making kegs more difficult to buy simply encourages people to buy cases. Locally and around the country, many college campuses already ban kegs, but it hasn't stopped the drinking.

"They're getting pallets of beer delivered at Pitt and CMU," said one local beer sales representative.

In fact, keg sales are down in Pennsylvania.

Until last year, statewide sales of kegs averaged 4.9 million barrels. Last year, though, the number dropped to 3.9 million, according to Jay Goldstein of the Pennsylvania Beer Wholesalers Association.

While Goldstein believes some of the decline is a result of changing lifestyles and reduced consumption, most of it is because colleges and national fraternities have cracked down on the traditional keg party, long a staple of college life.

"Keg registration might have been a reasonable answer 15 or 20 years ago, but now that the use of kegs has shrunk dramatically, I don't think that's true," he said.

DeBacco-Erni doesn't buy the opposition's arguments.

Cases of beer, she contends, are more expensive, harder to keep cold and difficult to transport. What's more, she said, the coalition believes the legislation takes the liability off the beer distributor.

Patsy and Diane Bellisario, owners of Mellinger's on Semple Street in South Oakland, which does a large business with college students, disagree. They oppose the proposed law, saying their obligation is to take every step possible to make sure that the beer they sell is sold to people 21 or older.

"It will cut keg sales," Patsy Bellisario said. "People won't want to put their name on that keg. They'll buy cases."

Mary Collette, the only member of the Springfield, Mo., city council to vote against that community's keg-registration law, said that very argument worried her.

"It's an easy one to vote for, I suppose, because it sounds harmless. But it seems to me that some of the information we were provided with showed that keg sales dropped dramatically [in places that have the law]. I suspected there was still a lot of beer drinking going on," Collette said.

Patsy Bellisario knows what it's like to spend a Friday night arguing with customers who swear they are 21 and produce all sorts of identification purporting that they, indeed, are of age.

What would help him the most, Bellisario said, is if Pennsylvania and surrounding states standardized their driver's licenses so his swipe-card machine would work on all of them.

But in a place like Oakland, with a large national and international population, there are all kinds of identification cards floating around. And college students have mastered the art of faking them.

"The thing that would help me most is bar codes on driver's licenses. New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, that's where we have our biggest problem," Bellisario said. "Bar codes, that's what they should be fighting for. Not for this stupid sticker -- this puts a burden on me. It's going to take time and it's a nuisance."

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