Closing the Alcohol Tax Loophole will Address Longstanding Public Health Problems by Vic DiGravio and Maryanne Frangules

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Massachusetts is one of only six states that don’t tax alcohol at retail stores. While alcohol is cheap here, the costs of substance abuse are staggering. And everyone pays – even people who don’t drink at all.

One of among several proposals to raise revenues before the Legislature, the plan to eliminate the sales tax exemption on alcohol sold at package stores and some grocery stores makes sense economically and from a public health perspective. For the estimated one-third of people who don’t drink, it would cost nothing.

State officials estimate it would raise about $92 million. It’s a small price, considering that more than 2,000 deaths and 60,000 hospitalizations are linked to substance abuse and addiction. The cost to the courts, criminal justice and corrections systems total in the billions of dollars. We just cannot afford the cost of addiction any longer.

Our Campaign for Addiction Prevention, Treatment and Recovery brings together more than 100 organizations to press for elimination of the alcohol sales tax exemption. In putting together this coalition, one of the most telling anecdotes came from a legislative leader who said constituents used to come to him asking for help getting their children into college. Now, they ask for his help getting their family members into substance abuse treatment programs.

The alcohol sales tax exemption stemmed from a 1970s lobbying campaign by the package stores. Fair enough – they won the debate. But since then, the problem has spread, and the terms of the argument have changed.

The most recent study linking alcohol tax increases to public health consequences shows an almost immediate reduction in alcohol-related deaths, including cirrhosis, some forms of cancer, and pancreatic and cardiac diseases. Alcohol-related deaths dropped 29 percent following a tax increase in Alaska in 1983 and an 11 percent decline in 2002. In Massachusetts, of course, we have not raised alcohol taxes in more than 30 years, so there is no equivalent data.

If the Legislature adopts any tax measures in order to sustain critical public health programs, lifting the sales tax exemption on alcohol in Massachusetts would be the wisest option.

Vic DiGravio is President and CEO of the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Corporations of Massachusetts, Inc. Maryanne Frangules is Executive Director of the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery. They Co-Chair the Campaign for Addiction Prevention, Treatment and Recovery.

This program aired on March 20, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.