My Turn: Alcohol users should pay up front

Posted: Sunday, May 05, 2002

In response to Patrick McGonegal's letter (Empire, April 18), I agree individual drinkers of alcohol are responsible for their actions, but I would argue that all drinkers should pay for the costs incurred by the privilege of drinking.

Society has decided after Prohibition the sale of alcohol would be legal, but failed to provide measures to counter the consequences of the decision. Alcohol is an equal opportunity drug that some can use in moderation, but many individuals and their families are seriously affected by it. Alcohol is implicated in 83 percent of child abuse, 60 percent of domestic violence, 63 percent of sexual assaults, 42 percent of fatal automobile crashes, 45 percent of fatal fires, 46 percent of homicides, and 50 percent of emergency room visits. I have seen many good people have their lives destroyed by their use of alcohol. I do not think any of them made a decision to destroy their lives, and the lives of others, before they started drinking.

Let us analyze the example that Mr. McGonegal gave about not paying for drunk drivers that get into an accident. The police, ambulances and tow trucks get called. If the driver and other victims are still alive, they get taken to the emergency room. If the drunk driver survives, she/he will have to go to court and often to jail. Who pays for the police, ambulance and tow truck? Who pays for the medical bills? Who pays for attorneys, court and jail costs? Should each step have a means to pay evaluation? For services that are not billed to individuals, the city or state absorbs the cost. When services are billed and the individuals do not have the money to pay, private businesses and hospitals transfer the cost to those who do pay their bills. Health and automobile insurance companies raise their premiums to compensate for the uninsured.

Let us look at the cost of the innocent victims of alcoholism - the children. The cost to care for each child born with fetal alcohol syndrome is over $1.2 million. Neglected and abused children need evaluation and placement in foster homes. This costs money. Binge drinking before a woman knows she is pregnant can cause major physical and mental problems in their fetus. Studies show that pregnant women who consume as little as one-half drink per day, produce kids that have measurable learning disabilities. Who pays for the special education needs of these children? Who compensates these children for their lost potential?

It is obvious there are lots of costs to drinking that get passed to society. Without counting pain and suffering, it costs society an additional $2 per drink sold. The state of Alaska spends over $250 million a year dealing with the harmful consequences of alcohol while legislators are having difficulties finding funding for constructive activities such as education. It is high time that we tax alcohol at the rate that it costs society. Drinkers should be responsible and pay up front for the costs that are being passed on to society. A tax of $1 per drink will cover the government costs and help lower consumption. The proposed 10 cents per drink alcohol tax is a gesture in the right direction.

Fred Z. Chu of Juneau is a physician.

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