As published as an OpEd in The Hartford Courant, February 27, 2005.

Revenue Isn't the Only Consideration

By Thomas Babor

Should the General Assembly follow Gov. M. Jodi Rell's recommendation to raise taxes by 15 percent on wine, beer and spirits? Should it adopt Sen. Bill Finch's proposal to permit alcohol sales on Sundays? It isn't often that such clear choices face the policy-maker and the public.

Unfortunately, when policy decisions regarding alcohol are framed only in terms of tax revenues, the issue is unlikely to be decided in a way that serves the public good. The reason is simple: Alcohol is no ordinary commodity. Unlike other products sold on Sundays and subject to normal sales taxes, alcohol has always had special restrictions placed on its availability. Such controls are justified on the basis of public health and public safety.

Alcohol misuse is associated with more than 60 medical conditions, including breast cancer, heart disease, liver cirrhosis, motor vehicle accidents, depression and violence. It ranks third as a health-risk factor in industrialized countries, accounting for as much disease and disability as smoking and high blood pressure. In Connecticut, about 5 percent of the adult population drinks at levels that suggest abuse or alcoholism, and another 15 percent drinks at levels (two to three drinks a day) that bring a serious risk of accidents, injuries and other health conditions.

What does this have to do with Sunday sales and alcohol taxes in Connecticut?

Society has long recognized the health liabilities of addictive and intoxicating substances such as alcohol. So taxation and controls on availability have, since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, been the main vehicles to limit the damage caused by alcohol. When taxes on alcohol go up, drinking problems go down. When restrictions on alcohol availability are taken away, drinking problems go up.

Several years ago, I worked with an international group of scientists to review evidence on the effects of different policy options on alcohol use and public health. Our report was prepared for the World Health Organization so it could advise governments throughout the world on how to deal with the growing burden of alcohol-related health problems. After reviewing more than 450 studies conducted throughout the world, we found that alcohol taxes and restrictions on hours and days of sales were among the most effective of the 31 strategies and interventions used by local and national governments as part of their alcohol policy.

So what are the relative merits of the two proposals before the General Assembly? Based on the scientific evidence and public health considerations, higher alcohol taxes can be expected to raise revenues, cut down on alcohol-related health care costs and have a minimum economic impact on moderate drinkers who consume less than the safe limits of seven drinks a week for women and 14 drinks for men.

It is only for the 20 percent of the population who drink beyond these safe levels that the costs translate into less booze for the buck - not a bad thing if you are one of those people who drives after drinking.

As for alcohol sales on Sundays, the effect is both symbolic and substantive. Symbolically, it would send the message that alcohol is an ordinary commodity that should be as available to consumers as milk and groceries. On a more substantive level, when is the last time you felt the need to pick up a six pack or a bottle of vodka on a Sunday morning? Sunday sales are likely to favor impulse purchases by people who are already drinking beyond the safe limits, leading to increases in weekend binge drinking and a variety of associated problems.

If governments continue to relax controls on alcohol sale hours and taxes, they can no longer argue they are looking out for the public interest. Public health research shows that Rell's proposal for a modest tax hike on alcohol is good policy, whereas Finch's proposal is a step in the wrong direction.