IN ONE FELL swoop, Congress could cut teen-age drinking, drunk-driving deaths and liver cirrhosis while raising more than $10 billion a year in new revenues. How can it achieve this seemingly magical feat? Simply by raising alcohol excise taxes to more productive and traditional levels.
The United States, and other nations, have long taxed alcoholic beverages to raise funds. As recently as 1941, such taxes provided over 11 percent of all federal revenues. That figure slid to 5 percent in 1951 and 0.8 percent last year.
While sometimes dubbed "sin taxes," levies on alcohol (as well as cigarettes) could more aptly be called health taxes, because of their dampening effect on potentially damaging use. Despite the complexities of estimating demand for alcoholic beverages, experts all agree that tax-induced price increases will reduce sales. Just ask the distillers, who expect a 5 percent decline in their market when the federal excise tax on liquor goes up on Oct. 1.
What really counts, however, is the mounting evidence that price hikes affect heavy drinkers as much as or more than others. Even relatively small price increases on liquor, observes Duke University economist Phil Cook, are tied to reduced rates of cirrhosis and auto fatalities, two standard indicators of abusive drinking. Michael Grossman, of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and others conclude that modest price increases -- about 30 cents for a bottle of liquor and a dime for a six-pack of beer -- would decrease drinking among young people as much as raising the minimum drinking age by one year.
Similarly, Swedish sources report that, of the various prevention measures introduced there, taxation of alcoholic beverages has "served as perhaps the most powerful instrument of a . . . policy designed to keep consumption within reasonable limits."
In the United States, alcohol taxes, unlike most other taxes, are set in absolute terms (i.e., dollars per gallon) rather than as a percentage of purchase price, income or profits. Thus, unless taxes are indexed to inflation, their "real" dollar value progressively diminishes.
Predictably, the gradual, then galloping, inflation of recent decades has devastated alcohol taxes. Since 1951, the last time alcohol taxes went up, inflation has reduced the value of the alcohol tax dollar by 75 percent. This has robbed the U.S. treasury of approximately $100 billion in revenues over the past three decades. Inflation-adjusted tax rates on alcoholic beverages are now much lower than they have ever been since Repeal.
Congress' sole response to the shrinking worth of alcohol taxes has been to increase the tax on distilled spirits alone, by a modest 19 percent.
The singling out of liquor for a tax hike raises a second problem with alcohol taxes: Different beverages are taxed at very different rates. The alcohol in liquor is taxed at four times the rate of that in beer and 17 times that in table wine.
This discriminatory treatment is based, in part, on the traditional belief that "demon rum" is more dangerous than beer and wine. High-proof liquor is certainly the fastest route to inebriation, but beer is now the most popular alcoholic beverage and the one on which most teen-agers begin their drinking careers. Trendy new wine coolers, which have about the same alcohol content as beer, are pushing hard to unseat beer as the favorite of youths.
With chronic $200-billion-a-year budget deficits now menacing America's economic health, and alcohol abuse undermining our physical and social well-being, Congress should boost alcohol taxes substantially. According to pollsters, this is one tax increase that a majority of Americans support. Organizations ranging from the American Association of Retired Persons to the Children's Defense Fund to Remove Intoxicated Drivers also back higher alcohol taxes.
Tax adjustments should take two forms. First, the tax on distilled spirits should be doubled. That would put the tax rate, in inflation-adjusted dollars, at about what it was in 1972 and at about the average of what it has been since 1934.
Next, the favoritism for beer and wine should end. In many important ways, alcohol is alcohol is alcohol. Tax it all equally.
Allowing for a decline in alcohol consumtion, these two adjustments would raise $10 billion to $14 billion a year in new revenues. This tidy sum would not end the deficit, but it could, for example, certainly take some of the pressure off Medicare and other social programs.
Equally salutary, the decline in drinking would help reduce the onerous costs related to alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Translated into economic terms, this could mean billions more in savings from reduced medical expenses and increased productivity.
If any further justification is needed for raising taxes, one need only note how alcohol problems affect the federal balance sheet. The government spends hundreds of millions of dollars for direct treatment of alcohol-related sickness and injury through Medicare and Medicaid, the Veterans Administration, Defense Department and other agencies. It also incurs about $3 billion in lost productivity due to drinking problems among federal employes. In addition, the Treasury loses billions in income tax revenue each year, as a result of the $70 billion in alcohol-related productivity losses in the private sector.
Reducing the deficit and improving the public's health hardly require a magician's talents. All it takes is for Congress to raise the taxes on what many experts consider the most widely abused drug in America.