From Virginia's rural grocery stores to the bars of Georgetown, beer and wine drinkers and sellers are expressing alarm over the prospect of dramatically higher federal taxes on their drinks of choice.
A proposal to raise the federal tax on a six-pack of beer from 16 cents to about 81 cents and on a 750-milliliter bottle of table wine from 3 cents to 76 cents emerged from talks between President Bush and congressional leaders on reducing the estimated $206 billion budget deficit.
"It's not fair, because it's taxing a single group of people, instead of the whole society. The deficit is everybody's problem, not just people who drink," said Will Barnett, an Illinois college student working in Washington this summer, who was downing a beer in a Georgetown bar.
Don Crump, who owns the Davis General Store on Clifton Road in Fairfax County, said higher taxes might not mean less consumption, but would pressure retailers to keep prices competitive.
"If a man wants beer, he's going to drink beer," said Crump. "But he's going to shop around a lot more closely. When things go up, people start getting a little smarter."
"I don't think trying to tax any one group of Americans is the way to do it," Eric Berlin, administrative assistant to the Greenbelt town manager, said about reducing the deficit through higher taxes as he sat one recent evening in Mr. Smith's of Georgetown. "Sin taxes are high enough as it is."
Some area retailers and wholesalers estimate that such an increase would raise the average price of a six-pack of beer from $3.89 to $5.49, a draft beer by 30 percent and a bottle of wine by $1.50 by the time wholesalers and retailers make their usual markups.
"It would be devastating," said Dennis P. Gallagher, executive vice president of the Virginia Beer Wholesalers Association. "This industry has seen its sales increase in the range of only 1 1/2 to 2 percent a year, and you're talking about something that would increase taxes fivefold."
Maryland wholesalers predict they would lose 5 to 10 percent of their sales.
"It's definitely going to hurt our business, and there's no doubt in my mind we'll see some decrease in sales," said Al Horton, general manager of the Bob Hall Inc. distributors in Upper Marlboro.
Congressional Budget Office officials said decreased consumption could be counted among the benefits of the tax increase.
"You're raising revenue by taxing a commodity that is seen as having some negative social effects," said Robert Reischauer, head of the budget office. He also noted that a reduced federal budget deficit could lead to lower interest rates, which would reduce mortgage payments and business costs.
Still, higher excise taxes hit very close to home for a lot of people.
Virginians now pay 32 cents in excise taxes -- 16 cents to the state and 16 cents to the federal government -- for a six-pack of beer. The proposed federal increase would raise the total tax to 97 cents per six-pack.
A 750-milliliter bottle of table wine is taxed 30 cents by Virginia -- the second highest rate in the nation -- plus 3 cents by the federal government. The proposed federal increase would raise the total tax to $1.06 a bottle.
In Maryland, the state tax on beer is 5 cents a six-pack and 8 cents on a 750-milliliter bottle of table wine. The District taxes each six-pack 5 cents and each bottle of wine 6 cents.
Virginia's Gallagher estimates that the state's 80 beer wholesalers are worth $300 million to the state in excise taxes and salaries every year. In Maryland, the beer industry says it's worth about $240 million to the state, employing 13,700 people.
"Everybody loses," said Gallagher. "You aren't going to raise tax revenues if you aren't selling the product to begin with."
According to the Congressional Budget Office, federal taxes on beer and wine have fallen 75 percent when adjusted for inflation since 1951, the year those taxes last changed substantially. In addition, combined taxes on beer, wine and distilled spirits in the United States are among the lowest in the industrialized world.
The tax increase would mean higher beer and wine prices in stores, restaurants and bars.
Joe Guiffre, a Springfield beer wholesaler who employs 64 people, said his business would quickly feel the pain of a tax increase.
"In all likelihood, we would have a retrenchment, laying people off or not replacing them as they left," said Guiffre, whose business supplies retailers in Alexandria, Fairfax and Arlington. "It would readily have an effect, beginning with the sales people and trickling down to administration and to the warehouse.
"It's a coward's way of taxing, because consumers tend to think it's the product that's costing more and not the government that's costing more."
But federal officials said the beer and wine tax, while not as broadly based as an income tax increase, may be justified on other grounds.
"We, as a society, devote tremendous resources to the effects of excessive alcohol consumption, and those are paid by general taxes," said Reischauer. He cited health care costs, drunken driving, and reduced productivity in the workplace as examples.
Winemakers and merchants fear a loss of business just as much as the beer industry.
"Raising prices will cut down the amount of wine sold, and it's going to continue to cut down what we do," said Chris Smith, manager of Cecile's Wine Cellar in McLean. Smith and other wine merchants said they are concerned that increased taxes will drive small wineries out of business.
"If this trend continues, you're just going to have mediocre, medium-priced wines from the larger wineries who can afford to absorb the tax," said Smith.