Alcohol kills more people in Alaska than opioids, meth, and all other illicit substances combined. More than a third of households are negatively impacted by alcohol misuse, and Alaskans are dying at a rate twice as high as the national average. It is the leading health issue in our state and something must be done.
Increasing alcohol taxes has been proven time and again across the U.S. as one of the most effective ways to reduce the harms of excessive alcohol consumption, and to combat underage and binge drinking. Evidence shows that increased alcohol taxes are directly correlated with decreased deaths, traffic accidents, interpersonal violence and crime. No other industry is allowed to get away with wreaking such havoc on our community, and alcohol should be no exception.
Contrary to some claims, alcohol is not being singled out; tobacco and marijuana are also taxed in Anchorage as both preventative and revenue-generating measures. Contrary to the belief that Alaska’s booze is taxed at the highest rate in the country, that is solely considering the excise tax and conveniently leaving out the statewide sales tax enforced by 45 other states. The combination of the two leaves Alaska firmly in the lower half of states in terms of overall taxes on alcohol. Contrary to the fear expressed that local watering holes will go out of business, experience shows that raising the tax does not impact moderate drinkers, but does reduce underage and heavy drinking. I am sure no bar or liquor store wants to overserve an intoxicated person or sell to a minor; this tax will, in fact, help them be safer operators.
When Alaska’s state alcohol tax was increased in 1983 and 2002, a study of 40 years’ worth of health outcomes data found significant and lasting reductions in the numbers and rates of deaths in Alaska caused by alcohol-related disease. You could put the money raised from the tax into a hole in the ground and still, lives would be saved.
However, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and the Anchorage Assembly have more foresight than to actually bury the funds. Instead the revenue would go directly into desperately needed alcohol misuse prevention and treatment and behavioral health programs, along with solutions to prevent and combat the related issues of public safety and homelessness prevention. A primary concern I repeatedly hear is the lack of detox and inpatient treatment beds, and every day I recognize the dire, unmet needs in behavioral health in Anchorage.
Opponents say that increasing the alcohol tax will put the burden of solving problems related to alcohol solely on the alcohol industry. In fact, the burden of alcohol misuse already falls on our entire community - our first responders and police, our nonprofits, our businesses, our neighborhoods and our families. This is borne in costs associated with health care, absenteeism from work, early death, law enforcement, and the immeasurable human costs of harms such as domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, drunk driving and suicide. An alcohol tax spreads the cost across all consumers of alcohol, from those who live in Anchorage to other Alaskans who travel here for goods and services, to the tourists who come to experience this wonderful place we call home. The alcohol industry will continue to thrive and, with this measure, so can our communities.
People in Anchorage are asking for solutions to our substance misuse crisis, and I applaud and wholeheartedly support the effective public health approach of an alcohol tax increase.
Tiffany Hall is the Executive Director of Recover Alaska, a nonprofit group combating alcohol abuse in Alaska.
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