Who Profits From Alcohol Taxes?

money in the handsWhile there appears to be no acceptable level of alcohol consumption to participants at the Alcohol Policy 16 Conference, which met last week in Arlington, Virginia, they certainly don’t mind profiting from people who do drink. During a discussion on alcohol tax policy, these “public health advocates” discussed ways to hike the rates as much as possible and earmark the funds to their own organizations.

I thought we’d hear about research related to the impact of taxes on alcohol abuse. For example: Do higher taxes really reduce alcohol abuse or do they simply punish all alcohol consumers? The answer to that question appeared not to matter. The entire discussion revolved around how to lobby for taxes and profit in the process.

Rebecca Ramirez of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University presented her qualitative research on the framing of pro-tax messaging for use in lobbying campaigns. It included interviews with policy makers and activists involved in these campaigns. Ramirez’s discussion eventually turned to earmarking, which is apparently the key reason many groups are involved. One disability advocacy group, she noted, told her flat out that they simply didn’t care about the public health impacts of taxes. They were in the game solely to get some of the tax revenue earmarked to their organization.

But what happens when too many groups want a piece of the pie? There simply isn’t enough to go around. Accordingly, Ramirez suggested that groups might want to keep their coalitions just large enough to win, so that each could get a bigger piece.

How does this serve public health? It doesn’t, according to Bruce Lee Livingston of Alcohol Justice. He commented during the question and answer portion that activists are unable to get taxes high enough to actually produce positive public health benefits. Rather, he called for a “charge-for-harm” approach, which is based on the assumption that anyone who drinks deserves to be punished.

So there you have it. “Public health advocates” have two main reasons for taxing alcohol: profit and punishment. Somehow that simply doesn’t seem fair.