My Turn: Alcohol industry can pay now or pay much more later

Posted: Sunday, April 15, 2001

In a recent My Turn article, Butch Tangney gave the alcohol industry's view of alcohol abuse, drunk driving and pending legislation. I would like to give my view as someone who has spent 30 years working in substance-abuse programs. First, the article indicated that drunk driving has become less a problem due to the drop in drunk-driving fatalities. This is true nationally; drunken driving deaths have dropped from 50 percent of total traffic deaths to 39 percent. But in Alaska, drunk-driving fatalities remain at above 50 percent of the Alaska deaths.

Most of these deaths were innocent occupants, including a number of children. What makes matters worse, many of these killers were served alcohol even though they were obviously drunk. The drunken driver who killed Juneau resident Ladd Macauly staggered into the liquor store and was served. A recent sting operation by JPD visited 13 liquor establishments and gave out 13 citations for selling to kids, all in one night. These are not uncommon occurrences in Alaska. The lack of enforcement and server attitude are problems in Alaska. At most establishments that serve alcohol, there is a built-in conflict between the profit motive and the refusal to serve one more drink for the road. A higher standard of commercial behavior must be maintained when a potentially damaging product is peddled to the public. There is the potential for addiction-dependence and much social harm.

The booze industry blames individual drinkers for not "taking responsibility" for their actions and behaviors. This sounds great but is unrealistic. Individuals who are served, often to excess, a central nervous system depressant that affects thinking, reasoning and logic never will make sound decisions about their own abilities. This is especially true about driving after drinking. Should all the responsibility be placed on the individual or should the licensed establishment share some? Alcohol often produces abnormal behavior, as do other depressant drugs. The only difference among this class of drugs is that alcohol is legal. It is legal, but with many caveats regarding the sale and dispensing to the public. The regulations governing sales of this chemical are strict but apparently not so clear in the Last Frontier.

Alaska has one of the biggest problems with excessive drinking and Southeast leads other regions in per-capital consumption. This creates tremendous costs that the taxpayers must pick up. Estimates range from $250 million to $300 million, while the present low excise tax on alcohol brings in only $12 million. To make matters worse, four major wholesalers based in Seattle take hundreds of millions of dollars in profits out of Alaska each year and leave Alaska with expenses and havoc. When a small increase in the excise tax is suggested, this "legitimate" industry screams foul. During legislative testimony on the new alcohol tax bill, many in-state retailers were not against a tax after 18 years at 3.5 cents per drink. The out-of-state wholesalers and the large beer companies fear a national trend could start in Alaska. They are blocking any reasonable legislative compromise on HB225 which calls for 10 cents a drink increase this year. If the alcohol tax had kept pace with inflation since 1961, the average tax per drink in Alaska would be 47 cents.

When any industry is part of creating more problems that the benefits it provides to society, it is only a matter of time before its legitimacy is called into question. The costs, divorces, health problems, domestic violence, and on and on have brought the liquor industry's value into question. The greed cannot go on much longer, taking in large profits and leaving the costs to the Alaska taxpayer. The state Constitutional Budget Reserve will be dry in a few years and taxpayers will be asked to pay much more. In turn, taxpayers will ask who is not paying their way. The answer is obvious to those of us following the issue. The liquor industry may want to stop being so shortsighted and become part of the solution instead of the problem. Time is running out and you are going to pay now or may much more later.

Matt Felix is executive director of the Juneau affiliate of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

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