It'll be a sin if Clinton doesn't tax alcohol,too

MIKE LITTWIN

September 24, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

It was a good day at our nation's breweries. Well, it's just about always a good day there. But this one was special.

Bill Clinton had just given his speech on health care. Oh, it was a beauty, too. He demanded, in language that sometimes soared, that every American have access to comprehensive health care.

Now, even if you have qualms about the particulars of the Clinton plan, you can't argue against that principle. The president called it a moral imperative.

Down at the offices of our nation's breweries, you could almost hear the executives cheering: "Bill, this Bud's for you."

Yep, they were excited. I'm not sure if it was the managed-care system that moved them, however. Let me ask you: Do you understand why the insurance companies need to be part of this package? Like insurance companies are efficient? I spent half the Bush administration on hold (come to think of it, so did Bush) trying to reach my health-care provider.

Those are just details, though, to be worked out later.

Meantime, the big news at the breweries was that there was no news, meaning Clinton did not ask for a sin tax on alcohol to help pay for the plan. He wants a sin tax -- but only on cigarettes. When he announced a cigarette tax in front of Congress and a continuously nodding Al Gore and a national TV audience, there was much whooping and hollering. It looked like a stop on the Lollapalooza tour.

These days, you just can't go wrong attacking smoking. It's ugly and it makes your eyes water and 75 percent of us don't do it. So, tax away. They're talking an additional $1 a pack. Heck, make it $5.

Why not? Smoking -- sorry, Joe Camel -- kills about half a million people a year.

Alcohol? Gosh, alcohol kills only about 100,000.

Yeah, that's right, about 100,000 a year, of which maybe 6,000 are teen-agers. And there are approximately 10 million alcoholics. And one survey by the American Medical Association said that perhaps 25 percent of all hospital patients can trace their problems to alcohol.

Alcohol -- that most legal of drugs -- looks like a natural for a sin tax. Drinking, particularly to excess, is unhealthy. Taxing the product raises money and, at the same time, reduces consumption and saves lives.

This is especially important if you don't want teen-agers, who have limited funds, drinking until they pass out -- which is, if memory serves, the time at which many of them stop. Add a couple of bucks to a bottle of your basic apple wine and you're going to make this world a slightly better place in which to live.

Unfortunately, there are at least 10 billion reasons against such a tax.

According to the National Beer Institute, that's how many six-packs of beer we consume in America each year (if you measure all beer consumption in terms of six-packs). Can you envision 10 billion six-packs? Just think how long it would take to sing the song: "60 billion bottles of beer on the wall, 60 billion bottles of beer, take one down, pass it around, 59 billion, 999 million, 999 thousand, 999 bottles of beer on the wall . . ."

Think, also, of how much money would be raised by adding a $1 sin tax to each six-pack of beer.

Clinton, who has enough problems, did not want to take on Joe and Jane Six-Pack, not to mention the alcohol beverage industry, which is a major lobby in Washington and contributes millions of dollars to our legislators.

The last time Congress raised taxes on alcohol -- the tax on a six-pack of beer rose from 16 cents to 33 cents in 1990 -- the brewery boys went nuts. There was a can-the-beer-tax campaign, which argued that it was a tax on the little guy. It's heartwarming to know that Anheuser-Busch is on our side.

At this point, of course, Clinton doesn't want to tax anybody he doesn't have to. And yet, in a Wall Street Journal poll last March, 87 percent of those surveyed said they would support a 50-cents tax increase on a six-pack to help fund health-care reform. People understand. Somebody has to pay.

The National Alcohol Tax Coalition says that a 50-cent boost in the excise tax on a six-pack -- along with similar raises on bottles of wine and distilled spirits -- would bring in $22 billion over five years and save many more billions in alcohol-related health costs.

That's too good to pass up in a time when the need is so great and the money so scarce. It can help make health-care reform work. Or we can just sit around watching Swedish bikini teams while asking ourselves that ultimate existential question: Why ask why?

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