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Beer tax would help defray cost of abuse

Earlier this year, three teenagers were injured after the car they were riding in struck a rock on the beach at the Oregon coast. Authorities said alcohol appeared to be a factor in the horrific crash.

Thankfully, no one paid with his life. But we as a society do pay when people abuse alcohol. The fallout from alcohol consumption contributes heavily to the rising costs of Oregon's public health, criminal justice, education and other social services.

Oregon taxpayers shell out more than $900 million a year to cover the costs of substance abuse, including alcohol. Alcohol-related hospitalization charges alone exceeded $84 million in 1999, according to a recent analysis commissioned by the Oregon Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking, a statewide nonprofit group. The analysis was based on hospital discharge records.

Alcohol sales revenue should cover the costs incurred due to the detrimental effects of heavy drinking, but current revenue does not come close. Oregonians foot the bill through higher insurance premiums and medical bills.

During the next few months, a task force appointed by Gov. John Kitzhaber will hear testimony regarding alcohol sales and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, the agency that regulates the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages. The panel is charged with reviewing and recommending changes, if any, to improve the alcohol industry's business practices without adverse impacts on government revenue or alcohol-related problems.

I believe the panel ought to make several recommendations to the governor and Legislature that will make Oregon a better, safer place to live:

• First, the state should increase the excise tax levied on beer. As it stands, we Oregonians pay less than a penny in tax for a 12-ounce bottle. The tax has not been increased since 1977 and is among the nation's lowest. Beer is the most heavily consumed alcoholic beverage in Oregon but generates less than 7 percent of the $102 million the state realizes in annual revenue from all alcohol sales.

Assessing a tax of 10 cents per bottle could generate about $85 million annually. The additional revenue could expand cash-strapped substance-abuse prevention and treatment services, which have proved to be good investments. Based on the results of numerous polls, a majority of Oregon voters supports a beer tax increase.

In the past, the beer industry has claimed a tax increase would place an undue burden on beer drinkers and that higher prices would hurt their business. But consider that Anheuser-Busch Cos., the world's largest brewer, recently raised the price of its products and has done so each of the past three years. Despite that, the company's revenue has grown.

• Secondly, I believe the OLCC ought to retain a greater portion of alcohol revenue to ensure compliance with alcohol laws. Based on figures from the agency's minor decoy operations, alcohol retailers fail to identify nearly one-third of underage purchasers. Statistics show that compliance is improved through effective enforcement, but with just 37 inspectors and about 10,000 alcohol outlets, the task is enormously daunting.

A comprehensive approach combining effective enforcement, prevention and treatment, and price increases is vital to combating the serious consequences of alcohol abuse. We need every weapon in our arsenal.

Nina Robart is executive director of the Oregon Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking, a statewide group of organizations working to reduce underage drinking through policy changes and advocacy.