Dedicate beer tax funds to address local impact of abuse

Another Voice

By SHARON GUIDERA

and MAIJA YASUI

Speecial to the News

Where were you in 1977? “Star Wars” was playing, Elvis Presley had just passed away, and the Portland Trail Blazers won their one and only NBA championship.

If you were an Oregon legislator, you may have voted to adjust Oregon’s beer tax for inflation in 1977, the last time such an adjustment was made in our state. Now, 26 years later, a bipartisan group of legislators from urban, suburban and rural districts alike is proposing to adjust the beer tax and dedicate the proceeds to alcohol prevention and treatment. We think the time has come to support these legislators and pass a beer tax adjustment this session.

Alcohol addiction reaches deep within our families and communities. In the last 26 years in Oregon, alcohol abuse has contributed to at least 6,451 traffic fatalities, which translates to about four deaths per year since 1993 in Hood River and Wasco counties. More than 680 clients received addiction services in Hood River, Wasco, Gilliam and Sherman counties in the past year. Nearly half of those people were required by the courts to receive such services because of driving under the influence of intoxicants. And in 1999, the cost of alcohol addiction in Oregon was an estimated $2.3 billion — $683 per resident — due to health consequences, criminal behavior, and job and productivity losses.

Against this background, consider that 1,517 alcohol and drug treatment clients and 49,673 adult and child mental health clients — many of whom struggle with alcohol addiction — have been turned away from these county-delivered services due to 16 months of state budget cuts. In our four-county area, the number of people in addiction treatment has dropped 30 percent during that time.

These cuts to preventive and treatment services could not come at a worse time for our state. The Oregon Legislature has presided over $57 million in cuts to shared state-county public safety and human services over the last two years. In addition, an unprecedented state revenue shortfall looms on the horizon. Legislators deserve praise for rooting out government inefficiencies and prioritizing spending — especially the bipartisan push for a stable and affordable public retirement system — but these efforts are not likely to result in adequate resources for public safety and human services. Although not a complete answer to the budget crisis, new revenue to address the local impact of alcohol abuse must be considered part of the solution.

The 7-cent-per-bottle proposal, sponsored by Reps. Tom Butler, Jackie Dingfelder, Steve March and Max Williams, and Sen. Bill Morrissette (House Bill 2804), would be good for our state and county. Independent research has shown that even small increases to beer taxes prevent underage drinking. This is because beer is the unquestioned drink of choice for young people today. Those same teens illegally purchase 20 percent of all beer sold in the United States. Adults who abuse alcohol purchase another 30 percent of all beer sold, with the remaining 50 percent purchased by adults who drink responsibly.

The deterrent effect of just a 7-cent increase per bottle — generated before a single tax dollar is spent — gives Oregonians a cost-effective tool for reducing underage drinking.

Consider also the effect of restoring recent cuts to alcohol addiction treatment and prevention services, local law enforcement and community mental health services. Under the proposed legislation, the funds raised would be directed to these local services with accountability ensured by citizen-driven budgets, independent audits and, ultimately, local voters. No new bureaucracy is formed.

It is argued that legal-aged beer drinkers of modest means will be unfairly punished by a 7-cent increase per bottle. But research has shown that demand for beer remains relatively strong among legal-aged beer drinkers even after an increase in price. Some say that Oregonians will not support an improvement in Oregon’s ranking as the state with the 46th lowest beer tax rate in the nation. But Oregonians have overwhelmingly supported increases in the beer tax in poll after poll, with one poll showing 71 percent of Oregonians in favor of a modest adjustment as recently as January 2002.

The time is right for a reasonable adjustment to the beer tax, and our legislators have a perfect opportunity right now to end the suspense. Although Oregonians may have to wait a while longer for the Trail Blazers’ next NBA trophy, we should not have to wait a minute longer for the support that a 7-cent-per-bottle beer tax would provide to local services that address alcohol addiction prevention and treatment services.

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Sharon Guidera and Maija Yasui are Hood River residents. Yasui is employed in the drug prevention field; Guidera works in the mental health and addictions field.

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