The Harmful Sin Tax: Why We Shouldn't Charge Extra for Drinking

By Michael S. Fenster

Moderate alcohol consumption -- like physical activity or never smoking -- is associated with a mortality reduction across all ethnic groups

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The Buddha said long ago that salvation lies in the Middle Way. That is something that, as an interventional cardiologist, I and many colleagues within the medical community have also been saying for years regarding alcohol, and specifically wine, consumption. The data examining the health advantages and detriments for alcohol, and wine in particular, is compelling in terms of risk/benefit analysis -- with moderate consumption as the caveat.

Pursuit of the four pillars would encourage improved health in the general population and reduce mortality and chronic diseases.

As a chef and culinary Buddha promoting the gastronomic Middle Path through the Grassroots Gourmet approach to cooking and eating, wine is an indispensable culinary companion of mine. This camaraderie between man and wine goes back many thousands of years. Wine has served us by providing experiences from the medicinal to the mystical, and from the caloric to the culinary. It has been alternatively deified and demonized. But at a personal level, as both a gastrophile and oenophile, wine is an indispensable part of my kitchen armamentarium and dining pleasure; a pleasure I justify as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.

And now that bastion of medical directives and wisdom, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), agrees. A study from CDC researchers recently published in the American Journal of Public Health examined the consequence of various lifestyle behaviors and their effects -- independently and cumulatively -- on all-cause mortality, mortality from cardiovascular disease, death from malignancy, and death from other causes. The data came from 16,958 participants aged 17 and older who were part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study III (NHANES III) from 1988-1994 (with mortality assessed through 2006). The four pillars of a healthy lifestyle include never smoking, healthy diet, moderate alcohol consumption, and physical activity. Each positive lifestyle choice was associated with a mortality reduction and the most powerful effect was the synergistic action of all four together. Those who engaged in all four activities were 63 percent less likely to die. The benefit was evident across all ethnic and gender groups. As the authors themselves noted, these findings are consistent with similar data from around the world which include moderate alcohol consumption as part of a healthy lifestyle.

All of which begs the question -- especially if we seek to promote these healthy behaviors through the expenditure of millions of dollars in government programs to encourage physical activity, healthy eating, and smoking cessation -- why are we taxing alcohol? The taxes levied on alcohol are generally categorized as a "sin" tax. In the United States, the generally recognized sin taxes are applied to tobacco, gambling, and alcohol. The purposes of sin taxes are generally twofold: to raise revenues and to decrease the utilization of a particular product or activity. The tax on alcohol brings in billions of dollars (over five billion in 2008) to state and local governments, thereby satisfying the first requirement. Fortunately, Americans recognize a healthful endeavor when we see it. Despite the taxes, alcohol consumption has remained steady -- with around 70 percent of the U.S. population partaking -- over the last several decades. Of course, some of us overuse, but most are able to moderate their intake.

Pursuit of the four pillars would encourage improved health in the general population and reduce mortality and chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. This would result in a reduction in the enormous costs associated with these conditions. Unfortunately, encouragement of three of the four healthy lifestyle choices is adding millions to the general ledger. But there is an option which encourages an activity recognized as one of the four pillars of a healthy lifestyle and stimulates the economy at the same time. Reduction or elimination of the alcohol tax would certainly make it easier for folks to have that daily quaff or two. At the same time, the tax break could be viewed as an economic stimulus, much like the Bush-era tax cuts and payroll tax breaks currently in effect to stimulate more spending.

So let us be free from sin, or at least sin taxes. Perhaps the elixir for what ails us is a cocktail of tax reduction/elimination and, well, a cocktail. That's an idea we can all drink to.

Image: Martin Froyda/Shutterstock.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/11/the-harmful-sin-tax-why-we-shouldnt-charge-extra-for-drinking/248133/