Alcohol is no ordinary commodity. It's not like milk or juice or any other food product. It's true that alcohol generates some tax revenue and offers employment for distributors and people working in bars and restaurants. But that's only part of the story of alcohol. The benefits connected with the production, sale and use of this commodity come with enormous costs both financial and social to our families, communities, Alaska, the U.S. and the world.
Those costs are evident in our police departments, courtrooms, jails and prisons dealing with alcohol-related crime and violence, including domestic violence and sexual assault. Those costs also account for a significant percentage of emergency-room visits. They include challenges in learning for students whose parents can't get them to school on time or at all or for those with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. They include lost productivity and workdays for employers. Additional costs are the emotional toll on families that are broken, and sometimes broke, from the impact of an alcoholic or problem drinker in the home.
And, most importantly, the cost of alcohol includes families grieving for the loss of a child, parent, sibling, relative or friend killed by a drunk driver or other alcohol-related deaths.
• Nine of the 10 leading causes of death in Alaska can be associated with substance abuse as a potential contributing factor. Leading causes of death, such as chronic liver disease, cirrhosis, homicide, suicide, and unintentional injury, are strongly associated with substance abuse.
• Unintentional injury was the third leading cause of death in Alaska; Alaska's unintentional injury death rate was 1.5 times the U.S. rate.
Alcohol has substantial negative impacts on our communities. But you know this. And most Alaskans know this. In the Healthy Alaskans 2020 June 2013 report, 89 percent of citizens polled identified alcohol/drugs as the main health concern to them and for their community. In 23 community meetings held in April and May of 2013, Mat-Su residents voted alcohol and substance abuse as the number one health issue in Mat-Su.
That's because we all bear these social costs of alcohol personally. Employers, government, communities and our families directly bear the financial and social costs of alcohol.
How high are just the financial costs? Alcohol costs to the Alaska economy in 2010 totaled $1.2 billion:
• $673.2 million in productivity losses
• $50.5 million in traffic crash costs
• $217.7 million in criminal justice and child protective services
• $237.3 million in health care
• $13.2 million in public assistance and social services
That means in 2010, substance abuse and addiction cost $1,688 per Alaskan. That's up from $1,242 per Alaskan in 2005.
On the other hand, alcohol taxes only generated $38.7 million in state revenue in 2012 and only half of that was placed into the Alcohol Treatment and Prevention Fund. Of course, alcohol taxes are just a part of the solution to complex problems caused by a commodity that generates some revenue but at an enormous cost to all of us. Alcohol taxes shift some of that financial cost burden to those high volume consumers who create much of the cost.
As another part of the solution, The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority has partnered with the Recover Alaska initiative, led by the Rasmuson Foundation, and The Trust board of trustees recently added a new focus area devoted to alcohol and substance abuse prevention. By focusing our resources weaim to actively be part of the solution as well.
Most Alaskans don't engage in heavy and binge drinking. Most people who drink alcohol do so in a way that is healthy and responsible. Most underage youth don't drink alcohol. Alcohol taxes offer one way to support the health of our communities in a way that will not financially hurt the majority. This is why the citizens of the Mat-Su Borough will vote on a local alcohol tax on October 1, and why Anchorage and other local governments should also consider alcohol taxes as a way to offset some of the financial costs of this unique commodity.
Jeff Jessee is chief executive officer of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.