Compass: How long will Alaskans fear taxes more than the misery of alcohol abuse?

Most people use the phrase, "Alcohol and drugs" but the correct phrase is "Alcohol and other drugs". Anyone who has lived in Alaska for any length of time knows, from the news and from personal experience, that alcohol, by far, is the most destructive drug out there. Despite this knowledge, Alaskans refuse to tax alcohol to make it pay for more (not all) of the millions of dollars that the State and Municipality spend dealing with the effects of alcohol abuse (A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the cost of excessive alcohol consumption in the United States, in 2006, reached $223,500,000,000.00).

I know firsthand that Alaskans won't tax alcohol because in 1994 I did an initiative, in Anchorage, to put an 8 percent tax on the sale of alcohol. My purpose in doing that initiative was to save innocent lives. I wanted, at least some of the alcohol tax revenue to be used to hire more police officers. I knew that there would be times a drunk driver would be arrested who otherwise would not have been arrested and, as a result taken off the street and consequently some innocent person(s) would not die. No one would have ever known that their life had been saved because a police officer hired with the money from the alcohol tax arrested a drunk driver who otherwise would have killed them, but I would know that someone's life would have been saved. Unfortunately, the alcohol industry is a very formidable foe and they were able to narrowly defeat the initiative. The way they did it was they hired a California advertising firm which came up to Anchorage and did its polling/research and found out that many Anchorage voters, while they were not against an alcohol tax per se, did not trust the Assembly. With this knowledge in hand the Californians crafted their advertising campaign, not against the alcohol tax, but against the Assembly. The alcohol industry's T.V. and radio ads never said that an alcohol tax was a bad idea, unfair or unjustified but rather said that the voters could not trust the Assembly to spend the money wisely. The ads also said that a municipal employee (me) was behind the tax and implied that I was trying to feather my own nest. I was a municipal employee at the time (that part of the ad was true) but I was working at the Anchorage Telephone Utility which received no monies from the Municipality (in fact, ATU gave money to the General Fund) so I would never have received any alcohol tax revenue.

I had wonderful grass roots support from many, many Anchorage residents and churches who helped me not only get the thousands of signatures I needed to put the initiative on the ballot but who also supported the effort with contributions in the $10 to $25 range (with a few $500 checks). The alcohol industry received no contributions from any Anchorage residents but they did get multiple thousand dollar checks from outside alcohol interests and thus they were able to heavily outspend us. With all of its financial resources, the alcohol industry's California advertising firm's campaign was able to sow just enough doubt/confusion in voters' minds and play on enough Anchorage voters' mistrust of the Assembly to defeat, by half a percentage point, the initiative. I often wonder had that initiative passed how many fewer people would have been killed in the last 19 years.

I love history and something one of my favorite historical figures, Winston Churchill, said applies here, "Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it". Until Alaskan voters finally value innocent victims' lives more than they hate the idea of taxing the legal drug, alcohol, Alaskans are destined to, every time some driver drinks to excess and kills someone, throw up their hands and say what a horrible thing it is (until the next time it happens). As long as Alaskans are more afraid of a three letter word than a drunk behind the wheel of a car, be prepared to read more sad stories of drunk drivers killing innocent people.

Jim Crary is a former Anchorage resident who now lives near Ashland, Ore.