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Councilors reintroduce alcohol tax proposal

A proposal by two Boston city councilors would place a 2-percent tax on all alcohol served in the city to raise money to fight the state’s opioid epidemic.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File

A year after the proposal was met with stiff opposition, Boston City Councilors Bill Linehan and Frank Baker are back — more determined than ever — to raise the price of Beantown booze.

In a recently filed petition, the councilors announced they will reintroduce their proposal for a special 2 percent tax on all alcohol sold in Boston, in hopes of raising more than $20 million in additional local revenue per year.

The councilors’ cause, increasing resources to fight the state’s burgeoning opioid epidemic as well as alcoholism, is universally applauded. But the councilors’ method of raising money — by taxing an already regulated good — has prompted criticism from the hospitality industry.


“Everyone’s talking about [addiction], and we’re all making gradual impacts on the issue,” Linehan said. “But the real impact, like anything in this country, comes from a comprehensive application of resources. . . . We need to create new resources.”

Last year, Linehan and Baker held hearings on the proposal but did not bring the petition to a full council vote, citing a lack of support. This time, in an effort spearheaded by Jack Kelly, a former City Council candidate and recovering heroin user who serves as Linehan’s policy aide, the councilors have a new strategy to thwart the hospitality industry.

The first step was releasing a detailed list of what could be accomplished with $20 million in specially earmarked local revenue: 24-hour addiction-outreach coordinators, $11 million for city shelters, and $4 million for therapeutic support.

Another strategy: encourage transparency from alcohol retailers.

“Restaurants can put the tax right on the menu,” Kelly said confidently. “If people knew what the money was going to, they wouldn’t care about the cost being passed on.”

There is some evidence to support Kelly’s assertion. Although voters statewide narrowly rejected a 2010 referendum on increasing in the sales tax on alcohol, 66 percent of Boston voters supported the proposal of the increased tax.


But don’t tell that to Luke Steele and John Clarke, two patrons at Worden Hall in South Boston on Sunday afternoon. The pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon they sipped while watching the US Open cost $12, not including sales tax, and the men opposed the idea of any additional cost.

Under Linehan and Baker’s proposal, a $10 martini would cost an additional 20 cents and the price of an average six-pack of beer would increase about 12 cents, Linehan’s office estimated.

For Steele and Clarke’s jug of brew, a 2 percent tax would mean an additional 24 cents.

“But that’s money that comes from my wages,” Clarke said, unmoved by the services that tax could provide.

Steele, a mixed martial arts teacher, said the city politicians were misguided.

“If you want to stop opioid addictions, then do something about opioids — not beer,” Steele said. “That’s not going to solve anything.”

Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, largely agreed with such sentiments. Luz said he doubts Linehan’s assertion that the public would support the measure, and even if it did, the issue should reside at Beacon Hill — not City Hall. Consumers are overtaxed as it is, Luz said, and if Linehan and Baker’s proposal passes, it sets a bad precedent for future state crises.

“Raising the price of beer and wine is not going to stop the opioid problem in Boston,” Luz said. “This is a legal product. You can’t just ask for 2 percent here and 2 percent there, it doesn’t make any sense.”


A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, a coalition of about 2,000 alcohol sellers statewide, including hundreds in Boston, reiterated that her organization also opposes the proposed tax.

In Boston, there is already the local-option meals tax, which means .75 percent of all meals — including alcohol — served in the city is contributed to the local government. That money is not earmarked for any specific purpose, and could be used to fight addictions, Luz said.

Linehan, whose district includes several hospitality hot spots in downtown Boston, the Seaport, and the South End, said Luz’s logic misses the point. Diverting money from other funds to curb the addiction crises would only place a “Band-Aid” on problems, according to the councilor.

New money is needed, Linehan said, and he expects the full council to vote on the measure this fall.

“If you add 30 cents to a $15 martini, especially if it’s someone’s second or third one, I don’t think they’d really care,” Linehan said.

Jim O’Mara, a lawyer who was shopping Sunday at Social Wines on West Broadway Street in South Boston, agreed.

“Yeah, I’d pay 2 percent,” O’Mara said nonchalantly before exiting the store, bottles of red wine in tow. “Why not.”

Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.