You might think that lawmakers would jump at the chance to reduce suicides and domestic-violence assaults without spending a dime.

But if doing so involves raising the tax on alcohol – America’s favorite drug – don’t expect to see much enthusiasm. A proposal to do that was recently voted down by the Legislature’s Taxation Committee. Still, L.D. 1070, sponsored by state Rep. Barbara Cardone, D-Bangor, is an important bill that deserves an honest debate.

Lawmakers should put aside all the cliches and prejudices and look at the benefits that would follow raising the price of booze.

There are few public health threats that have been studied as thoroughly as alcohol.

Abuse of the substance is the third leading preventable cause of death after tobacco and bad diet. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol is a factor in 88,000 deaths a year (62,000 men and 26,000 women) – more than all other drug-related deaths combined, including opioids.

Excessive alcohol use sucks $250 billion a year out of the national economy, with state, local or federal governments picking up about half the tab. Most of the costs – including vehicle crashes, violence, accidental injuries, chronic diseases such as liver cirrhosis and birth defects – result from “binge drinking,” defined as five drinks or more on one occasion by a man and four or more by a woman. Another at-risk group is described as “heavy drinkers,” or men who consume over 15 drinks a week, and women who have eight or more.

Surprisingly, it’s not necessarily a problem of addiction, according to the CDC. About 90 percent of excessive use of alcohol is done by people who don’t meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder, despite engaging in dangerous behaviors. The good news is that many of them could reduce their risk by moderating their intake of alcohol.

Alcohol use has been thoroughly studied, and so have effective public health interventions. The most successful one involves pricing.

Study after study has shown that raising the price of alcohol has a predictable result: People drink less, and importantly, this is especially true for the heaviest drinkers.

In studies going back 30 years, increased alcohol prices have been shown to reduce the private costs of alcohol use, like liver disease and depression, as well as the external costs, like drunken driving and violent behavior.

But despite all the data, politicians scoff at the best tool at their disposal to save lives – higher taxes on alcohol.

The effect is predictable and simple to understand. People who spend every last dime on alcohol will have fewer dimes to spend. When you limit the capacity of underage drinkers, binge drinkers, heavy drinkers and people with alcohol use disorder to buy more booze, they will drink less.

Opposition to the bill comes from the manufacturers and distributors of beer, wine and spirits, who say it would be unfair to people who drink responsibly. But the less you drink, the less you would pay, and everybody would benefit from living in a community where there is less abusive drinking.

The supporters of L.D. 1070 argue, plausibly, that reducing that kind of drinking would reduce cases of domestic violence and suicide, behavior that is strongly linked to heavy drinking.

If doing something as simple as increasing the price of a drink would reduce suffering. it would be worthwhile.

 


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