By Amy Lee
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – College administrators remain concerned about legislation that would let the state's ABC stores sell 151-proof grain alcohol.
Linda Hancock, a member of the Virginia College Alcohol Leadership Council, said she and other education professionals fear that such liquors – which are more than 75 percent alcohol – may attract inexperienced college students who tend to pour overly strong drinks.
On Wednesday, the House of Delegates passed HB 1842, which would allow Virginians to purchase 151-proof neutral grain alcohol at their local ABC store.
Hancock is the director of the Wellness Resource Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. However, she emphasized that she was not speaking as a VCU employee.
As a clinician and campus health educator, Hancock said she is not worried about the over-30 adults who are the main consumer base for Everclear, a popular brand of grain alcohol. It comes in two varieties – 151 proof and 190 proof.
"151 is not a highly purchased item – at least, you would think it would not be. How many people are making limoncello, you know?" Hancock said, referring to Jello shots that some adults mix with grain alcohol at parties.
HB 1842 would amend Virginia's existing laws, which set the cap of sellable alcohol at 101 proof in 1993. Despite their significantly stronger alcohol content, high-proof neutral grain spirits are tasteless, odorless and colorless, leading University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan to equate the liquor to a "date rape" drug.
The Virginia College Alcohol Leadership Council was a vocal opponent of a similar bill during last year's legislative session before it was vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Steven Clarke, then-director of the Campus Alcohol Abuse Prevention Center at Virginia Tech, warned of the potential side effects of allowing high potency alcohols on campuses, including "personal injury, property damage, and academic non-performance."
William and Mary President W. Taylor Reveley III agreed, calling the bill "really a bad idea."
A report commissioned by the governor last year included a Gallup poll revealing young adults' increasing preference for spirits since the 1990s, as well as research that college students tend to put excessive amounts of alcohol in drinks.
The same report, however, emphasized that there is little evidence that the ban on 151-proof products has reduced underage drinking or alcohol misuse on college campuses.
"Most of the research that's been done on grain alcohol has been done on the 191 proof, and so there's not as much research on the 151," Hancock said. "But common sense would lead you to believe that since the drink size of 151 is only seven milliliters smaller than a 191, a lot of the same issues would apply," she said. "Most of the evidence is anecdotal, but there's still concern."
HB 1842 was passed after the bill's patron, Del. Barry D. Knight, R-Virginia Beach, added a five-year sunset clause to the bill, with the condition that legislation would revert back to 101 "if issues arise."
Additionally, Virginia ABC stores will be able to regulate the sale of high-proof neutral grain spirits, meaning the ABC board could choose not to sell it in stores near college campuses. The Virginia College Alcohol Leadership Council announced plans to form a subcommittee to work with ABC regarding product distribution. The main focus for the next five years, Hancock says, is continuing to learn how to keep young alcohol drinkers safe.
"It's really hard, because it's odorless and tasteless, to track what's done with it," she said. "The data is going to be hard to collect. But at five years, we'll be able to see what kind of measures have been installed around it and whether we think they're protecting college students and young adults. The main thing is that we for sure need more data, state-wise, about this issue."
Virginia and Vermont are the only two states to ban sales of 151-proof grain alcohol.