Commentary: Michigan’s Keg Tracking Won’t Stop Underage Drinking

Few people will argue against preventing underage drinking. Michigan’s new keg registration law, however, an attempt to trace the buyers of kegs that end up serving underage drinkers, will not accomplish that goal. In fact, keg registration is an invasion of consumers’ privacy and has proven repeatedly to be a waste of time and money. Moreover, it will do nothing to reduce underage drinking and could even make the problem worse.

As of Nov. 1, Michigan joined with the nearly 30 other states that have a keg registration law of some type, requiring businesses to affix a sticker or a “tag” to every keg that is purchased; have customers fill out paper work with their name and address; and maintain a database of those keg purchasers for a month or longer. Proponents maintain that keg registration is a cheap and easy way to help law enforcement identify and track down adults who illegally provide alcohol to minors. In reality, the cost of removing and placing tags, the filling out of paperwork, and the potential fines for lost tags place a significant burden on businesses and customers. 

While the state is currently providing free stickers for businesses, stores bear the full burden of the cost of removing the stickers on kegs once they are returned. Customers who lose the keg tag, even accidentally, will not only lose their $30 deposit on the keg, but also could potentially be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by up to 93 days in jail and a $500 fine. With the longer lines caused by the paperwork, the extra costs associated with the new registration requirements, and the potential fines, shops will likely see purchases of kegs dwindle, resulting in a possible loss of business revenue.

You may be thinking that the small increase in price and a few minutes filling out paperwork are worth it if they help reduce underage drinking. Research and experience, however, show that keg registration laws have had little or no effect on rates of underage drinking in states that have adopted them.

After four years and more than 200,000 keg tags issued, Georgia authorities admitted that the state’s keg tagging law seems to have had zero effect on underage drinking. Prosecutors in the state said they could not recall a single case where the keg registration system was used to arrest or convict a person of supplying alcohol to minors.

Moreover, buyers can easily avoid tracking by buying cases of bottled or canned beer. As noted recently in Reason Magazine, in New York, 30-packs of beer, rather than kegs, became the popular choice for party-related purchases after the state’s keg registration law went into effect in 2003 (the requirement expired earlier this year).

In their study, "The Utility of Keg Registration Laws," Chris L. Ringwalt and Mallie J. Paschall of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation found that state keg registration laws were “unrelated” to rates of beer consumption and adolescent binge drinking and drunk driving.

An earlier PIRE study found that not only have keg registration laws done little to reduce adolescent drinking, they actually correlate with higher rates of alcohol-related traffic accidents among minors.

“We didn’t find that laws mandating that beer kegs be registered to the purchaser made any difference in reducing underage drinking and driving fatal crashes. In fact with this particular law, we saw 12 percent more drinking-related traffic fatalities amongst those under 21,” said James C. Fell, the leader of the study and PIRE’s Program Director.

Why would this be? The answer, some speculate, is that as kegs become more difficult for minors to get their hands on, they simply switch to other types of alcohol, which usually means switching to higher alcohol content drinks like hard liquor.

So, while underage drinking should be addressed, keg registration has proven to be ineffective, invasive, and burdensome for law abiding citizens and businesses. It is no way to improve Michigan.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.