Lawmakers watered down the idea of ​​alcohol in a public health crisis

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO – JUNE 26, 2022: Alcohol department at a grocery store in Albuquerque, NM on June 26, 2022. Credit: Adria Malcolm for New Mexico In Depth

The alcohol industry scored a victory Saturday when the Legislature approved an increase in the alcohol tax from 18 to 20 cents per pint of beer, from 18 to 20 cents, which public health advocates called for. In this year’s session.

Lawmakers rejected a request from the Health Department for $5 million for a new Office of Alcohol Prevention despite the state’s historic budget surplus. A DOH spokesperson said the Epidemiology Division will use an additional $2 million in the agency’s budget to create a smaller version of the office.

Public health experts say the tax increase is so small it’s unlikely to have any effect on binge drinking, let alone address New Mexico’s problem. Very bad – in the nation Alcohol-related deaths.

House Tax Committee Chairman Rep. Derek Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, rejected the 5¢ drink proposal passed by his Senate counterparts and acknowledged that the final increase would fall short on the House floor. Representatives on Saturday morning.

“If we want to call it minimal, we can call it minimal,” he said. But we are rolling the ball the right way.

Some supporters of a higher alcohol tax see the measure as a glass half full, marking the first time in 30 years that the state has increased alcohol taxes. “I see this as the first step, not the end,” Sen. Majority Leader Peter Wirtz, D-Santa Fe, said Friday at a committee hearing where he and other Senate negotiators outlined the House’s smallest alcohol tax increase. (Microbreweries and small wineries and distilleries are completely exempt from the surcharge.)

Others have made small price changes.

“How many people have to die,” asked Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohachi, who sponsored the bill, which calls for a flat 25-cent tax on all beverages. “We’re losing kids at 21, 23 to cirrhosis of the liver,” she said in an interview, blaming her colleagues for taking more measures.

The fourth main reason is liver disease Deaths in New Mexicans between the ages of 25 and 34 and second for those aged 35 and 44, state health data show. One in three deaths among New Mexico residents ages 20 to 34 is alcohol-related.According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the highest share of any state.

A much larger tax would be needed, Pinto said, and would generate tens of millions of dollars more to fund programs to help people cut back on their drinking.

Sen. Antoinette Cedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, another co-sponsor, said her colleagues were disappointed that the tax increase was “so small” amid the “tremendous social, physical and economic harm” caused by excessive drinking. More than 2,200 New Mexicans will die from alcohol-related causes in 2021.According to estimates from the Department of Health, such deaths could double within ten years.

In the year Shelley Man-Leve, the leader of the volunteer advocacy group that supported this year’s measure and a similar bill in 2017, declined to describe this year’s outcome as a tax increase, calling what lawmakers did “sloppy.”

Because New Mexico’s alcohol taxes do not currently adjust for inflation, this year’s change in tax rates will return the state to the actual tax rates for beer and wine starting in 2017, and alcoholic beverages until 2019. At today’s inflation rate, the increase will increase. It is due to expire in the next 60-day period. Advocates have sought to make automatic adjustments another element of inflation that has been killed.

Still, Man-Leve hopes the energy in the legislative session will help grow a statewide coalition of people working together to push for change next year.

In other places that have raised taxes to raise prices on alcohol, study after study has shown that it reduces binge drinking and reduces alcohol-related injuries and illnesses.

New Mexico’s deep public health crisis prompted Man-Leve and others to seek the tax increase this year in signs of a changing legal landscape. Unlike the campaign six years ago, when a similar tax proposal died in its first committee, this year’s proposal made its way through multiple legislative committees.

On the final day of the session, six House and Senate lawmakers negotiated a much-reduced 5-cent increase between senators and the smaller tax increase sought by the House. They began to agree on prices for liquor and wine lower than those passed by the council.

Ultimately, the campaign did not survive a concerted attack from businesses that benefit from alcohol sales and arguments from seasoned lobbyists that the 2017 tax hike would hurt businesses and cast doubt on the science linked to alcohol. Disadvantages.

The alcohol industry – and in particular the world’s largest brewer Anheuser-Busch – has Nearly three-quarters of the dollars poured into New Mexico’s elected officials In the last decade. More than 200 candidates received the money during that time, with two out of every three dollars going to governors, who head certain legislative committees that decide the fate of bills affecting the industry.

Additionally, many of the industry’s high-octane lobbyists are themselves former state legislators, state officials or legislative staff who have known sitting lawmakers for years or decades.

At legislative hearings, industry representatives opposed to the tax increase repeatedly praised the proposal to divert all alcohol tax revenue to treatment and prevention. Currently, about half of the revenues go into the state’s general fund.

That measure wound up in the omnibus tax bill. Because of the huge size of the liquor business, even the penny tax increase passed by lawmakers is projected to raise $10 million per drink annually, $35 million less than the 5-cent tax increase the Senate supported. The new tax rates will take effect in January 2024.

Ted Alcorn contributed to this report.

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