Opinion: It's Time To Raise Excise Tax On Alcohol

(joseph a/Flickr CC)
(joseph a/Flickr CC)

On Friday, Massachusetts State Rep. Kay Khan, a Newton Democrat and Chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities filed a bill that would raise the excise tax on alcohol. (The bill isn't online yet, says a spokesperson, but here's the language from last year's bill, which is identically worded.)

Our guest bloggers, Maryanne Frangules, executive director of the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery, and John McGahan, president and CEO of the Gavin Foundation, Inc., argue here that the measure is badly needed to support addiction treatment and recovery services.

By Maryanne Frangules and John McGahan

Two years after voters repealed the sales tax on alcohol, which funded addiction treatment and prevention programs, the Massachusetts Health Council reported that alcohol abuse is more prevalent in Massachusetts than the U.S. on average, and emergency room visits (especially in eastern Massachusetts) for drug abuse surpassed that of other much larger metropolitan areas in 2011, including New York, Chicago and Detroit. In fact, Massachusetts ranked first — at a rate of four times the national average — for emergency room visits involving heroin.

These are not categories of achievement for which Massachusetts wants to lead the nation.

We have a drug and alcohol addiction epidemic in Massachusetts, and we need to get serious about prevention, treatment and recovery. The human and economic toll of alcohol and drug addiction are not sustainable for a healthy, civil society.

While the Legislature and Governor Patrick have supported funding for addiction services during the recession and its aftermath, we now face another fiscal year of lower revenues, reductions in spending for vital health programs and perhaps mid-year cuts to public health services, including addiction treatment.

It makes sense to invest in addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery services.  Otherwise our families continue to pay for the mounting social and economic costs of emergency room visits, law enforcement, court, and incarceration.

As the Massachusetts Legislature confronts a year of constrained budgets, one avenue for raising revenues while funding much-needed public services should be at the top of every legislator’s mind: bringing our state excise tax rates on alcohol in line with the US averages.

Currently, the excise tax on wine in Massachusetts is 10 cents per bottle. The excise tax on alcohol has not been raised since the 1979.

Massachusetts, with one of the highest rates of alcohol and substance abuse in the nation, has an excise tax currently well below the national average: $0.11 per gallon of beer and $0.55 per gallon of wine in Massachusetts, versus the national average of $0.278 per gallon of beer and $0.79 per gallon of wine. Our neighboring state of New Hampshire taxesbeer at $0.30 per gallon.

During the 2010 alcohol sales tax campaign, opponents of the sales tax claimed the measure was a double tax, becausealcohol is already subject to an excise tax (as is the case in 45 other states that have both sales and excise taxes). Bob Dwyer, a well-known blogger on the wine industry, was quoted during the campaign that the right way to discourage excessive drinking is to tax alcohol by volume, not by dollar value.  “I think the right thing to do is increase the excise tax,” he said.

Raising the excise tax in Massachusetts to the national average would raise much needed funding to help the state address the addiction epidemic in Massachusetts.  It would be hard for the liquor industry to argue that we would be putting retailers here at a disadvantage, since they currently enjoy a tremendous advantage over alcohol retailers in other states.

As legislators and the Governor look to reasonable revenue measures to balance the budget, revisiting the excise tax onalcohol should be at the top of the list.

This program aired on January 14, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.


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