President Reagan, admitting that we are now in a recession, is casting about for ways to increase federal revenues without proposing further budget cuts in basic services to the needy.
Michael Jacobson, alarmed at the national trend in alcohol abuse, is looking for ways to wake us up to the danger and also to pay for the treatment and rehabilitation of alcoholics.
They may be about to arrive at the same solution: a bigger tax on alcoholic beverages.
Congress has served notice on the president that further assaults on the already leaky "safety net" programs won't be tolerated and is casting a baleful eye at Reagan's untouchable defense budget. The administration is now looking at increased taxes on alcohol and tobacco as an escape hatch.
Jacobson, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, must be smiling.
Earlier this month, he wrote David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, with a proposal strikingly similar to the one now reportedly under consideration at the White House.
"We have calculated," he told Stockman, "that if the alcohol tax had kept pace with inflation since 1951, the U.S. Treasury would have received $77 billion more than it did. The lost revenue in 1981 alone would amount to about $15 billion. If, in addition to adjusting the tax for inflation, the tax on beer-and- wine alcohol were raised to equal that on distilled-spirits alcohol, the Treasury would have received an additional $10 billion in 1981. Thus, these two sensible adjustments would provide the Treasury with $25 billion per year."
The result would make unnecessary Reagan's proposed additional cut in federal spending of $13 billion. Still more savings would result if the "sin tax" were extended to cover tobacco. Under the present system, tobacco (except for large cigars) is taxed on the basis of quantity sold, not the selling price. Thus, the 8-cents-a-pack federal tax on cigarettes, a pretty stiff bite when a pack cost 25 cents, is a bargain now that the selling price has tripled.
Jacobson's proposal was not based on its revenue-raising potential but on its potential for reducing alcohol abuse.
"Excessive drinking destroys thousands of lives and families each year," he wrote for the current issue of Nutrition Action magazine. "Alcohol can cause mental retardation when it reaches fetuses. Alcohol-- especially in combination with cigarette smoking--can cause cancer of the mouth, throat, pharynx and larynx. Alcohol can rot the brain and liver. And alcohol leads to thousands of traffic fatalities, falls, suicides, fires and domestic disputes and deaths each year. The death toll due to alcohol is estimated to reach between 50,000 and 200,000 people a year." The dollar cost alone--in medical bills, property damage and lost wages and productivity-- reaches $100 billion a year and more, he said.
Jacobson, who admits to liking "my glass of Chablis as much as the next fellow," argued that it is time to "put some real money and muscle into the fight against excessive drinking."
He told Stockman that he was surprised to discover that the alcohol in beer and wine is taxed at a lower rate than the alcohol in hard liquor, "even though alcohol, regardless of its source, has predictable effects on the body," and that the federal excise taxes on alcohol had not been raised in 30 years.
The additional taxes he proposes would, he said, "undoubtedly reduce the alcoholism problem in certain segments of the population."
It is a good idea, on virtually every count. Even those of us who would like to see Reagan change his mind about his mammoth defense outlays, or who favor the closing of some of the more unconscionable tax loopholes for the rich, can see the value of a proposal that promises to improve both the physical and fiscal health of the nation.
As Jacobson points out, "thousands of lives and $100 billion a year is nothing to sneeze at."
He also notes that some of the budget cuts already enacted are for money that would support health care, including alcohol-abuse programs. Thus, if his proposal is accepted, Jacobson told Stockman, "it would be appropriate to earmark some of the increased revenue for alcoholism treatment and prevention programs, as well as other health programs."
I'll drink to that, too.