The citywide alcohol tax proposed by two Boston city councilors is well-meaning but misguided. City Council President Bill Linehan and Councilor Frank Baker have proposed a tax of between 1 and 2 percent on the sale of all alcohol in the city, including beer and wine, sold in all restaurants, taverns, bars, supermarkets, and liquor stores. The motive behind the proposal is a good one: Linehan and Baker want the resulting revenues (estimated to be in the millions) to be used exclusively for substance abuse prevention and treatment programs.
That’s a noble intent. Opioid addiction alone has been acknowledged as a region-wide epidemic, and last week Governor Charlie Baker appointed a 16-member committee to study the problem and make recommendations. The governor also pointed out that, in 2013, an estimated 978 people died of opioid-related overdoses in Massachusetts — a 46 percent increase over the previous year. There are, of course, additional costs to the residents of the state besides the human pain and suffering caused by substance addiction. In proposing the tax, Linehan pointed out that substance abusers — often unemployed and in need of shelter, medical care, and other services — are a burden on the public. Here is a way, he argued, to turn them into productive members of the community. “Dollar for dollar, it’s the best buy we can get,” he told the Globe in an interview.
He’s not wrong, at least in terms of the cost-benefit analysis of treatment vs. addiction. Nor is there anything wrong with “sin” taxes on items like alcohol and cigarettes. But a new sales tax on alcohol is not the best way to treat addiction. Alcohol is already subject to an excise tax. And in a statewide 2010 referendum, voters repealed a law passed by the Legislature that would have imposed an additional 6.25 percent sales tax. What’s more, the new city tax — a home rule petition that would require passage by the Legislature and the governor’s signature — would place an unfair burden on Boston, and its restaurants and liquor retailers, to help solve a statewide problem. Why should the liquor purveyors of surrounding communities benefit from such an unfair advantage?
The proposal is not likely to come up for a vote for several weeks, however, and it needs to be approved by Mayor Martin Walsh, himself a recovering alcoholic who has been frank about his addiction and is sympathetic to the recovery community. As to be expected, the Massachusetts Package Stores Association and the Massachusetts Restaurant Association have already spoken out in opposition to the tax. But they’re rightly concerned about the costs to their business. And they have a point. Making Boston yet a more expensive place to visit and live isn’t the best way to cure an expensive, and deadly, problem.