OTHER VOICES

Cut the cost of booze?

Posted Sept. 07, 2012, at 11:54 a.m.

Many Mainers may appreciate Gov. Paul LePage’s businesslike approach to government.

But we should speak loudly and clearly that cutting the cost of hard liquor in order to boost state revenue would be foolish and counterproductive.

Gary Reid, director of the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations, told a state legislative committee Wednesday that reducing the price of alcoholic beverages would benefit consumers and those who sell alcohol at the retail level.

That’s the kind of consumer activism Maine can ill afford.

Reid told the Legislature’s Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs, which oversees alcoholic beverage sales, that he hopes to obtain $40 million a year for Maine by ending a contract the state awarded in 2003 to a Massachusetts company to import and distribute hard liquor here.

Rumors have swirled for weeks that the LePage administration has a secret plan to pay off the state’s debt to Maine hospitals, which totals between $150 and $190 million.

That at least would benefit the state’s hospitals and get taxpayers out from under a large and embarrassing obligation incurred by previous governors and Legislatures.

And that might very well be a worthy use for additional liquor revenue. But making it cheaper and easier to obtain another bottle of coffee brandy or vodka is not.

Attention has focused in recent months on Maine’s highest-in-the-nation treatment rate for prescription painkillers. More Mainers now die from prescription drug overdoses than in car accidents.

But that extremely worrisome problem should not obscure the fact that alcohol abuse remains the state’s most serious drug problem.

Alcohol costs Maine businesses millions of dollars a year not only in health care costs but in lost time and worker productivity.

Alcohol plays a role in a very high proportion of domestic violence, violent crime and motor vehicle arrests.

The abusive use of alcohol has destroyed families and lives in all corners of the state, and boosts Medicare and Medicaid spending.

From a business standpoint, Reid recognizes that many Mainers buy cheaper booze in New Hampshire, which has set up several large discount stores to attract interstate traffic coming to and leaving Maine.

This is the sort of cynical revenue-raising tactic that New Hampshire legislators are famous for.

But most Mainers are not running to New Hampshire for their next bottle of Allen’s Coffee Brandy. They go to their local grocery store, drugstore or convenience store.

Reid says Maine’s prices are $2 to $7 higher than New Hampshire’s. That means the retail price would drop significantly all over Maine, again encouraging more consumption.

If there is an unrealized pot of gold connected to Maine’s liquor business, reimbursing Maine’s hospitals as quickly as possible would be a far better use of the money.

Some of that unpaid-for-care was no doubt delivered to people suffering from the effects of alcohol abuse.

Sun Journal, Lewiston (Sept. 7)

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