Wednesday, August 22, 2007

It would be a severe misstep for the County Council to implement a drink tax in Allegheny County. Though we have heard from tavern owners in opposition to the tax, we haven’t heard from a lot of tavern patrons. Eventually this tax will trickle down to middle and working class people who like to go out for a drink.

Americans are notorious for our strange relationship with alcohol. Religiosity has something to do with it – after all taxes on alcohol and cigarettes are commonly called “sin taxes” – but it’s about time that we grew up as a nation. Anyone who’s been to the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts can tell you that the Puritans, our original cultural policemen, drank beer in quantities we would now view as decidedly immoderate.

A tax on drink hurts taverns and their patrons. Which demographic of patron will be hurt the most? The working class – any additional tax on alcohol distributes the burden of collective revenue unfairly on those who have the least amount of money to pay for those taxes. For the tax on cigarettes this is understandable; we have long known that cigarettes kill and it is in the public interest to decrease the number of cigarette smokers.

Alcohol is a different substance and one that, unlike cigarettes, is determined by the individual’s relationship with it. There are significant health risks in drinking immoderately. There are also public risks. Drunk driving should be penalized, perhaps, even more heavily than it is now and particularly for repeat offenders.

However unlike cigarettes, where exposure increases one’s chances of getting cancer exponentially, the moderate use of alcohol has been shown to be, well, somewhat healthy. It’s not as healthy as going for a jog but there is nothing wrong with a glass of wine a few times a week. The majority of drinkers are moderate in their consumption but we make laws that seek to passively impose an abstentious morality on people that don’t want it.

A good, reasonably priced drink, is one of those quiet luxuries that crosses class divides: an investment banker and a welder can both share an affinity for Belgium beer and afford to do so. A strapped for cash graduate student and a successful lawyer can both order the same glass of Pinot Grigio at an Italian restaurant in Oakland and be, at least in terms of food and drink, equal patrons.

Any ten percent drink tax won’t break the bank of most people, but it may make them think twice about going out for a drink. On a $4 glass of beer, a ten percent tax would increase that drink to $4.40. If a person drinks four of those beers a week at a local bar (certainly not an immoderate amount), that is an increase from $16 a week to $17.60. In a year that’s the difference between spending $832 dollars on weekly drink compared to $915.

To a person who is making eighty thousand dollars a year, the $83 difference isn’t that much. To a person who makes twenty thousand dollars a year it is. Critics would say that if a person is one a shoestring budget then they shouldn’t be out at a bar drinking. To say this is not to understand the social motivations for doing so. Meeting friends for a drink is one of the cheapest ways to socialize in the evening, particularly those strapped for cash and for young people. It is far cheaper to have a drink than to see a movie – it is cheaper to have a drink than to go to a play or museum – in some places, it is cheaper than a latte.

For all the lip service by public officials in Pittsburgh about economic development and especially the declining number of young people, it is amazing that the County Council would consider a tax that would hurt businesses and disproportionably hurt young drinkers and the working class. A sin tax on drink, whether used on transportation or whatever, does exactly that. It’s a backward step from a region that, frankly, can’t afford any more backward steps being made by their government.

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