Some may have heard the story about the political convention that came to one town, where a small boy was selling puppies. When one of the crowd approached the youngster and asked whether his pups were Republican or Democrat, he said: “Neither, these pups ain’t like politicians – they’ve got their eyes open.”
Only a couple of weeks ago, Governor Mike Easley made a modest proposal to increase cigarette and alcohol taxes in North Carolina. Yet most legislators oppose the Governor’s proposal out of a knee-jerk reaction to all taxes or an unfounded fear the increase might offend during an election year. Such is blind reasoning at best.
Lawmakers have nothing to fear in voting for either a cigarette or an alcohol tax. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, voters approve of cigarette taxes by a two to one margin and thirty percent from each major party say they would cross party lines to vote for a candidate of the opposite party who supports a cigarette tax if the candidate of their own party wouldn’t. Moreover, according to an AARP Opinion Survey, seven in 10 North Carolinians strongly support a tax on beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages to generate money for health and long-term care services.
There’s no question cigarette taxes have been a win-win for the state. Only one year after North Carolina’s tax increase on smokes in 2005 and 2006, the state health director reported an 18 percent drop in the state’s smoking rates. Such not only translates into significant reductions in health care costs, but also saves lives while adding $110 million to state revenues.
Similar results would also come from raising alcohol taxes in the Tar Heel state. Studies show higher taxes on alcohol lead to reductions in both the quantity and frequency of underage alcohol consumption. The results include, among other benefits, lower traffic crash fatalities and reduced incidences of certain types of crime and STDs. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when beer taxes rise, gonorrhea rates usually drop among young people. A CDC report issued in 2000 showed raising the tax on a six-pack of beer by only 20 cents could reduce gonorrhea in this age group by up to 9 percent. That’s because alcohol-free youth are less likely to participate in high-risk sexual activities.
In his book, Paying the Tab: The Costs and Benefits of Alcohol Control, Duke University professor of public policy and economics, Philip Cook, argues legislators at the state and federal levels have been reluctant to raise alcohol excise tax rates for years. The result is the positive effects of these taxes in reducing alcohol related-problems have been substantially undermined by inflation. Cook notes in an interview with the Christian Action League that the beer tax in North Carolina hasn’t been raised since 1969. “A dollar in 1969 is worth $5.85 today. If the state had kept its excise tax in step with inflation, the current tax would be 29 cents per 12-ounce can. If we had the tax level ‘right’ in 1969, then we have a lot of catching up to do!” he contends. By failing to take this course, Cook says policy-makers are abandoning a powerful tool for promoting the public’s health.
Easley’s proposal would create no significant hardship for consumers. His tax proposal on cigarettes would still be less than half the national average. And since a third of adults don’t drink and most drinkers consume responsibly, the only people affected by the proposed alcohol tax increases would be those who do a lot of harm with heavy or addictive drinking.
Jesus once taught that when a culture’s leadership is blind, then everyone falls into the ditch. Certainly falling into the ditch in this case would mean North Carolina missing an opportunity to further reduce its smoking rates, curb alcohol abuse, slow down the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and raise an estimated $169 million for teacher pay and mental health services.
Lawmakers need to open their eyes on this one – for none are as blind as those who refuse to see.
Rev. Mark Creech is executive director of the Raleigh-based Christian Action League of North Carolina.