By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH – Proposed tax increases don’t usually win many fans, but the House Committee on Health this week heard from supporters of a hike in alcohol taxes with an eye toward decreasing underage drinking.
“We know that increasing the tax on alcohol has led to decreased consumption, particularly among youth who are more price-sensitive,” said Phil Mooring, chairman of the N.C. Substance Abuse Prevention Providers Association and a 30-year veteran of preventing and treating addictions.
“The 2008 N.C. Child Health Report Card … reports that the percentages of alcohol and substance abuse among adolescents in North Carolina is ‘troubling’ and gives North Carolina an F in preventing underage drinking for the fourth year in a row,” he told lawmakers Thursday. “We can bring that F up to an A … but we need your help.”
Sponsored by Rep. Verla Insko (D-Orange) and Rep. Sandra Spaulding Hughes (D-New Hanover), House Bill 1579 would increase the tax on beer, wine and unfortified wine by 8 percent and raise the tax on liquor sold in ABC stores by 2 percent. The extra money collected would go to a Risk Behavior Fund to support programs designed to prevent underage drinking and offered by The Coalition Initiative and other nonprofit organizations and for the development and implementation of a media campaign by the Department of Health and Human Services also targeting underage drinking. Under the bill, the Secretary of Health and Human Services would report annually on the fund’s expenditures and on the prevalence and frequency of underage drinking in the Tar Heel state.
Wanda Boone, founder of Durham TRY (Together for Resilient Youth, Drug Free Community Coalition) would love to see the tax hike help minority youth, who are often disproportionately targeted by alcohol advertisements.
“African-Amercian youth saw 34 percent more alcohol advertising in national magazines than did youth in general in 2004,” Boone told the committee. “Alcohol advertisers spent nearly $4.8 million in 2004 to place ads on all 15 of the programs most popular with African-American youth.”
She said that although studies show African-American youth drink less than other youth, the age-adjusted death rate from alcohol-related diseases for African Americans is 10 percent higher than for the general population.
“Because of the far-reaching health issues for all youth, I urge that community focused prevention methods be funded …,” Boone said.
Mooring said a report issued in January by the N.C. Institute of Medicine Task Force on Substance Abuse recommended that the General Assembly increase the excise tax on malt beverages (including beer) and periodically update the taxes.
“The Christian Action League has always supported increasing taxes on alcohol. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a dozen times, the alcohol industry constantly gets a pass when it comes to taxes,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League.
He pointed out that liquor is taxed according to alcohol content by volume, but that when the General Assembly voted in 2005 to redefine a malt beverage so that its alcohol content could be as high as 15 percent, it did not raise taxes accordingly. In other words, beer has continued to be taxed as if it contains only 6 percent alcohol.
“Taxes have never been raised on beer like they have been on liquor,” he said. “The higher the alcohol volume the higher the tax ought to be.”
Dylan Mulrooney Jones, a preventing underage drinking advocate from Durham who addressed the committee, further pointed out the need for a tax hike on malt beverages, the drink of choice for most young people.
“The excise tax is a flat tax so we’ve basically had 40 years of inflation eroding that tax,” he said in a separate interview on Friday. “Although in real dollar value its 53 cents/gallon, when you consider inflation that is equivalent to about 8 cents today.”
“Now in this economic recession, we’ve got the governor talking about the need for more revenue and lawmakers talking about raising taxes on electricity,” he added. “Why are we considering raising taxes on electricity and giving the malt beverage industry a pass? If we are going to raise a tax, why not have a public health benefit to it?”
An October 2006 Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation study showed underage drinking in North Carolina costs the state $1.2 billion in 2005.
“This legislation could reduce underage drinking by 3 or 4 percent across the state,” Mulrooney Jones said. “So it would decrease the costs in addition to generating revenue.”
As for the effect of the proposed tax increase on the average person, it obviously would have no impact on the non-drinker and would mean only about a $72/year cost increase to a person who drinks two beers every day. The significant impact would be on those who drink most heavily and as a result create more of a societal burden.
Members of the Health Committee took no action on the Increase Alcohol Taxes bill, nor did they vote on a proposal to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Sponsored by Rep. Earl Jones (D-Guilford), Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) and Rep. Nick Mackey (D-Mecklenburg), House Bill 1380 would allow anyone with a “debilitating condition” to grow a marijuana patch with a canopy of up to 100 square feet and keep an additional 24 ounces of ready to smoke pot on hand. “Qualified patients” could opt to name one or two caregivers to grow and handle their marijuana for them. With a doctor’s recommendation and a $10 ID card, virtually anyone could legally smoke marijuana.
The committee heard from a 66-year-old former North Carolina National Guard soldier and a 43-year-old nurse from Clayton who said smoking marijuana eases their pain. But their testimonies did not change the belief of many lawmakers that marijuana is a dangerous drug and not a reliable treatment.
“Studies show that smoking marijuana is not as effective as medications that we already have,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “The bottom line is that approving medicinal marijuana would be the first step toward total legalization.”
According to the Annals of Internal Medicine, “scientists at the National Institutes of Health indicate that after carefully examining the existing preclinical and human data, there is no evidence to suggest that smoked marijuana might be superior to currently available therapies for glaucoma, weight loss associated with AIDS, nausea and vomiting associated with cancer chemotherapy, muscle spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis, or intractable pain.”
While proponents of the bill say allowing medical marijuana would result in an estimated $60 million in revenues annually within four years, the bill does not include estimates of costs of enforcing its provisions or for addressing societal problems that would result. Nor does it address the fact that it would put North Carolina statutes at odds with federal law and could create a host of legal snares for caregivers or physicians whose patients smoke pot.