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A Holiday Toast ... To Higher Alcohol Taxes

(Matthieu Joannon/Unsplash)
(Matthieu Joannon/Unsplash)
This article is more than 1 year old.

Just before Halloween, a New Jersey man sued United Airlines, claiming a drunk urinated on him during a flight from Los Angeles and then passed out in the adjacent seat, while attendants dithered before relocating the victim to space where he could fly friendly, or at least dry, skies.

We can’t know whether the bladder-challenged boozehound, who reportedly copped to downing four rum-and-Cokes at LAX before takeoff, might have imbibed less had his bar tab cost more. But let me suggest, as we prepare for the holidays’ ritual rivers of drink, that we’d be better off if we paid higher taxes on all that wine, beer and punch.

The reason is more important than plugging urine geysers at 30,000 feet, desirable as that is. While opioid addiction grabs the headlines, we Americans have drunk ourselves into a silent epidemic that’s killing far more people.

Mind you, I’ve always liked a glass of wine as much as the next person. I’m also aware that advocating for paying the government more at the liquor pump rubs against two strands of our national DNA: low taxes and flowing spirits.

But if you’re concerned about the 64,000 people who died from drugs last year, then you ought to be aghast over the 88,000 drinking-related deaths annually.

A federal study called surging alcohol use over the first dozen years of the 21st century “a public health crisis.” Particularly hard hit are such groups as minorities and the disadvantaged.

let me suggest, as we prepare for the holidays’ ritual rivers of drink, that we’d be better off if we paid higher taxes on all that wine, beer and punch.

If the human toll doesn’t move you, maybe cold-blooded math will: In 2010, excess drinking cost the nation almost $250 billion (equivalent to a tax of $2.05 per drink) in medical and other expenses.

Three-quarters of that cost was attributable to binge drinking, said the researchers, whose “evidence-based strategies” to curb the problem included higher alcohol taxes. That evidence is compelling; one meta-review of 72 studies found higher taxes or alcohol prices reduce dangerous drinking.

Yet as with everything else these days, evidence matters little in alcohol policy. Federal alcohol taxes (about 21 cents per ounce for liquor, less than half as much for beer and wine) are stalled at 1991 levels, and many states haven’t raised theirs, either.

Any progressives who bray that these taxes are regressive on the poor, thereby privileging access to booze over saving lives, remind you that with friends like that, the poor don’t need Donald Trump, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Meanwhile, conservative anti-tax theology must bend to the notion that, since government must collect some taxes to run itself, taxing bad things like lethal drinking is sound policy.

In truth, our aversion to alcohol taxes is rooted not only in knee-jerk ideology but culture as well.

Prohibition’s brief blip notwithstanding, “Drinking has always been a cherished national custom, a way to celebrate, a way to grieve, and a way to take the edge off,” notes Foreign Affairs magazine. Alcohol insinuated itself indirectly into pivotal points in the American narrative even before nationhood, according to the author; the Mayflower that carried the Pilgrims here was “a boxy repurposed wine ship.”

Today, we’ve vernacularized our lunge for liquor as an antidote for everyday stresses. Just one example: “mommy juice” to calm overburdened parents.

During the debate over Prohibition, then-Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia had fun at temperance advocates’ expense, quipping that his only ancestor who’d drunk to excess was Nero. Yet the mathematics of 88,000 lost lives a year proves that LaGuardia’s proposed alternative to outlawing liquor — ”proper education” of young people in abstemiousness — has proven just as ineffective.

Moderate drinking may convey health benefits, though science is questioning even that received wisdom. What’s beyond dispute is that too many people cannot drink moderately. At some future holiday season, perhaps, responsible national leaders will give their country the gift of a tax hike.

For now, may you enjoy health and pee-free travels this season.


Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.


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