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April, 2005 -- Updated, May 17: see below

And Now it Gets Personal.

"Why wait till this becomes onerous? Stop it now. If youíve got a keg registration law, ask your local police and your legislator what the results have been, in measurable numbers. Write a letter to the newspaper explaining that youíre all for stopping underage drinking, but why not use something that works? If you donít have a keg registration law where you live, find out if oneís pending. If it is, ask why, and ask for real numbers, not policy projection bushwah. Keg registration, case registration, whatever new guise it takes, is part of the plan of the new Prohibitionists. Fight it, and refuse to take part in it."

That was my advice to you one year ago. Now itís my advice to myself. State Senators John Rafferty (R-Montgomery) and Sean Logan (D-Allegheny) are holding public hearings this month on a package of bills to fight underage drinking, one of which is a keg "tagging" law. The details are sketchy, but it's keg registration, plain and simple.

So Iím gearing up. Iíve already responded to the enemy in print. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an opinion piece from Felicity DeBacco-Erni on "keg tagging," which is apparently the new friendly name for keg registration. DeBacco-Erni made a number of statements that showed kegs to be large containers of beer, one truly menacing statement about using keg tagging to allow police officers to show up at houses that have bought kegs to hector the adults about not using the keg to allow underage drinking, and a number of statements about the evils of alcohol on campus. Nowhere in the piece was DeBacco-Erni able to convincingly connect kegs and the evils of alcohol; actually, she never even made the attempt.

Thatís because, as I pointed out in my response, kegs are just containers. Theyíre large, steel beer cans. My response ran in the Inquirer about a month later, on the front page of the Voices section, and I actually got phone calls and e-mail about it, 2:1 positive. Point to the forces of good and freedom, but it's one thing, and it's gone. I'm writing to my state senator and representative to register my opposition to the law, but that's just one letter, and it's gone. 

I want Pennsylvania to be the first state to take a serious look at this law. I want my legislature to examine keg registration carefully and rationally, hold it up in the light, see that it doesn't work, and toss it aside. You want to stop underage drinking? Fine, I've got ideas on that, but let's not do keg registration, because it doesn't work. 

How to accomplish that? First, gather every argument. Keg registration is an invasion of privacy. It has an unbalanced impact on small businesses; to wit, retail beer stores and the craft-brewing industry, which sells a lot of its beer on draft (and no, I'm not cynical enough to suggest that this may be the reason the big brewers aren't actively opposing it...oh, wait, I guess I just did). Keg registration encourages litter and is generally anti-environment. Keg registration makes it easier to buy a 13" Bowie knife than 5 gallons of light beer. Keg registration as proposed in Pennsylvania leaves the enforcement details, and fines and penalties up to the un-elected Liquor Control Board. Keg registration targets college students. Most importantly, there is no evidence that I'm aware of that keg registration works at all.

Prepare with references. I'm working on a piece on keg registration for New Brewer, so I'm getting all my back-up material. I'm talking to brewers who've seen keg sales drop off and who've had to deal with the paperwork. I'm going to talk to police chiefs to see if anything actually came out of these laws. I'm going to see if the MADD folks will talk about the laws' actual effectiveness.

Prepare alternatives. That's one thing I'm learning from watching the Democrats in the wake of Kerry's loss and their weak position in Congress: don't "just say no." So I won't say "Forget keg registration!" and leave it at that. You've got to have something to offer, and I'll either find alternatives that are already working or come up with some suggestions of my own.

Next, I'm going to get the word out. First step is to send out letters to every local talk radio show I can find to try to get on to talk about the issue. If they're right-wing, lean on the libertarian aspects of it. If they're left-wing, lean on the fairness aspects of it. Give them a good civil rant on the topic, and maybe supply them with a contact for an opposing view. Then I'll take that Inquirer piece, rewrite it to stand alone, and start pitching it to every major paper in the state. And you guys are probably going to get a Pint about it as well; I apologize ahead of time to those of you who are not from PA.

Rafferty and Logan are, as noted above, holding hearings: one in Pittsburgh, one in Harrisburg, one in Philadelphia. I aim to attend at least one of them. If I can, I'd like to speak at them, because I strongly suspect that the people who will be speaking at these hearings are going to be 100% in favor of this idea. I'm going to suggest to the Pennsylvania Malt Beverage Distributors Association that they show up to oppose this bill as well. It's more paperwork and fewer keg sales for them. Then I'll get in touch with homebrew clubs, beer appreciation websites, and every beer-lover group I can find in the state to let them know we need to show up, be civil, and be counted. 

Moving on from there will involve keeping the momentum up. The problem is, if you want a bill passed, once it's passed, you can celebrate and go home. If you don't want it passed, you have to keep showing up year after year after year. They've been trying to pass this bill for over five years. 

Why am I so determined to stop this bill? Because you have to stop these anti-alcohol people every chance you get. Because I hate the ignorant attitude represented by the kind of people who will say "If it saves one life, it's worth it!" and the legislators who knuckle under to that. Mostly, though, it's because there are more effective ways to stop binge drinking. 

I don't deny that binge drinking is a bad thing. I don't deny that drinking and driving causes horrible deaths every year. But I do say that it's high time that we started fighting these problems with programs that more tightly target those who are behaving badly, and leave the rest of us, who can handle it, alone. 


4/22/05: I was on Michael Smerconish's show this morning on WPHT-AM, they did a live broadcast from Goodnoe's Dairy Bar here in Newtown. I thought it was for the usual "so you're a beer writer, isn't that interesting" schtick, but he wanted to know why I was against keg registration. I gave him what I had, mainly that it didn't work. I didn't convince him, he seemed to think it was an obvious Good Thing, but it evidently worked on the crowd: I got some handshakes and "You're right, buddy" comments as I left.

I'm also now on the schedule to testify at Pennsylvania legislature hearings on a package of underage drinking prevention laws, including a  badly-written (my opinion) keg registration law. The hearing will be in early June, no exact date yet. (Meantime, I went to a similar hearing at Temple University on April 25th. MADD, the PLCB's Enforcement and Education heads, and some people who were really there to get grant money...we got our work cut out for us!)

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Revised: May 17, 2005