Stephen Simon and Chelsea Becker: Tax alcohol, save lives

  • Article by: STEPHEN SIMON and CHELSEA BECKER
  • Updated: March 27, 2010 - 5:22 PM

A dime a drink could give Minnesota the money it needs for DWI enforcement and other costs.

Minnesota should increase its tax on alcohol. The revenue could help defray heavy costs the state and its citizens incur because of excessive drinking. Some of those costs -- but not all -- have been the subject of the Star Tribune's "Smashed" series on drunken driving.

Excessive alcohol consumption costs Minnesotans an estimated $4.5 billion dollars every year, a burden created in a variety of ways:

Hundreds of deaths, thousands of injuries and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage -- all suffered in alcohol-related traffic crashes.

Huge costs in criminal justice system resources -- perhaps the majority of all such costs -- spent in dealing with alcohol-related conduct.

Massive health care costs incurred because of injuries and illnesses caused or aggravated by excessive drinking.

While Minnesota has an alcohol excise tax, the costs of alcohol use far exceed the revenues collected. A 2001 study by the state Department of Health pegged the annual cost of alcohol use and abuse at $4.5 billion (more than $900 per Minnesotan). But the state recovers just $234 million of these costs through taxes on alcohol sales.

Heavy drinkers consume a far disproportionate amount of all alcohol sold, cause an outsized portion of alcohol-related costs -- and would pay most of any increased tax. Estimates are that 10 percent of drinkers consume 60 percent of the alcohol sold in Minnesota.

Moderate drinking, by the way, is defined as two drinks a day, every day of the week. Yet if everyone who drank limited themselves to this "moderate" level, total alcohol sales would drop by 40 percent.

Minnesota is long overdue for an alcohol tax increase. The tax has not been increased since 1987, and over the past 20 years, the revenue it generates has declined by nearly 40 percent. Statewide public opinion surveys indicate that an overwhelming majority of Minnesotans support an increase in alcohol taxes to fund the criminal justice system to more aggressively deal with alcohol-related crimes.

More effective enforcement of drunken driving laws could be among the key benefits of larger alcohol tax revenues if the revenues were dedicated to shoring up resources in the criminal justice system.

Each year, approximately 35,000 Minnesotans are arrested for DWI. While the number of people who drive impaired has decreased, hundreds of Minnesotans are still killed every year and thousands injured in alcohol-related crashes.

Our state's tough DWI penalties do not deter people from drinking and driving for the simple reason that they don't fear being caught. Studies have shown that it is not tough penalties that deter drunken driving -- instead, it is the drunken driver's perception of the likelihood of being arrested.

It's estimated that a person has to drive drunk between 50 and 100 times before he or she is caught by law enforcement officers. With such a low probability of arrest, too many drunken drivers don't fear Minnesota's tough DWI laws. They know they can get away with it.

Minnesota would achieve a significant reduction in alcohol-related crashes if law enforcement increased the arrest rate of drunken drivers. But over the past 10 years, with ever more cars on Minnesota's roads being driven ever more miles, there has been a dilution in the ratio of law enforcement patrol miles to vehicle miles driven by citizens. Patrols are especially scarce in rural areas, where there is a disproportionately high rate of alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

Increased enforcement costs money. DWI enforcement is done mostly by city and county law enforcement agencies. These local law enforcement agencies are funded through property taxes. Cities and counties find it very difficult to increase their property tax rates, and thus, Minnesota is unable to increase its DWI enforcement.

Minnesota's current tax on beer and wine is just over a penny per drink; the tax on liquor is less than six cents per drink. Increasing the alcohol tax by a modest dime a drink would generate an estimated $260 million per year.

The additional revenues would allow Minnesota to increase DWI enforcement and adequately fund prosecution, public defense and treatment. They could fund the significant emergency room services needed by people who have consumed too much alcohol. They could also be used to increase public awareness.

What's more, according to a 2008 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, simply increasing the tax on beer, wine and liquor immediately reduces the number of deaths from alcohol-related diseases by lowering consumption.

A dime a drink is all it would take to significantly reduce the incidence of drunken driving on our roads.

Stephen Simon is a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and is director of the Minnesota Criminal Justice System DWI Task Force. Chelsea Becker is the research assistant for the task force.

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