Controls on interstate alcohol

Illegal sales: Maryland, Congress weigh bills to curb access of minors, state tax evasion.

April 05, 1999

ORDERING a boutique wine, a bottle of scotch or a case of beer for delivery to your door is as easy as getting on the Internet. Or making a toll-free phone call or mailing in a catalog order.

Trouble is, it's illegal. Increasing numbers of minors are buying prohibited alcohol from out-of-state suppliers. And states are losing perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in sales/excise taxes.

Legislation in both Maryland's General Assembly and in Congress aim to tighten enforcement of state alcohol beverage laws, and to crack down on access of minors to the controlled product.

The Maryland bill would make it a felony to ship alcohol to a consumer, without going through wholesalers and retailers. Direct shipments are now a misdemeanor. About 20 states prohibit direct shipments; the rest allow it under certain tight conditions, which are also ignored by some shippers.

The congressional bill would allow states to take their alcohol violations to federal court, skirting the need to persuade authorities in other states to take action.

Small wineries complain they can't find distributors to handle their product, so they have to sell direct. But the liquor industry has a system to link any consumer request with a legal local distributor.

Besides, the main offenders are so-called "clubs" that sell only to out-of-state customers and may not be licensed in their home state, says Charles Ehart, head of Maryland's alcohol tax unit.

Estimates of lost tax revenue vary widely. Internet sales of alcohol may top $1 billion a year. States need stronger means to enforce their laws, and close the tap on illegal interstate alcohol sales.

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