Raising revenue, the “lifestyle” way


Times, as we are constantly reminded, are tough. The Senate is trying to figure out how to pay for the 50 million Americans who are without health insurance, which means somehow scraping together some $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years. The good news is they have a plan. The bad news is the plan involves “Lifestyle Related Revenue Raisers” also known as “Sin Taxes.” In other words, you might pay more for wine.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is pushing for a beverage tax on alcohol and soft drinks. In a report to the Senate Finance Committee on May 12, Executive Director Michael Jacobson pointed out that charging a penny more per can would generate $1.5 billion a year. A penny tax per ounce brings in $16 billion. Your sugar fix is making you fat, America, so maybe if you have to pay more for your cola you’ll cut down a bit, which will address at the same time both the deteriorating health in this country and the lack of affordable healthcare.

Alcohol is even worse. According to the center, it’s a “major cause of illness, addiction, death, injury, and psychosocial problems.” Beer and wine have long enjoyed a tax advantage over hard liquor and the finance committee’s proposal aims to even it out. Consequently wine would get a 233 percent increase, or 70 cents per bottle compared to the current 21. The beer tax would go up by 145 percent, (but the tax on liquor would increase by a meager 19 percent). This is either because of or despite the fact that beer and wine are by far America’s favorite adult beverages.

This news has of course provoked cries of outrage from several sources, including former House Majority Leader-turned anti-tax lobbyist Dick Armey. It’s worth noting that last year Armey represented an international beverage business called Diageo. But Virginia Senator Mark Warner is not sweating it—at least for the moment. “Right now it’s nothing more than ‘chatter,’” says Kevin Hall, the senator’s director of communications, “so I think we’d prefer to wait to see if it goes any further before commenting on a hypothetical.”

Hypothetical or not, beverage manufacturers are unhappy too, telling the Associated Press that higher taxes would lead to “job losses for workers and higher costs for recession-weary consumers.” Similarly, Robert P. Koch, president of the Wine Institute, said, “singling out wine for higher taxes to reform health care is misguided because wine is part of a healthy diet and lifestyle for millions of Americans.”

It is tragic that 50 million people in this country have no insurance, and I’m perfectly willing to pay higher taxes to help solve that problem. But like Koch, I disagree with our government’s assessment of wine and beer as harmful and unnecessary. If the government has to raise taxes on wine and beer, I wish they could do it without labeling them “lifestyle choices that contribute to rising medical costs.” I prefer to think of wine as a culinary choice, a cultural choice, even an agricultural one. So protest in the streets, write your senators, whatever you need to do to fight this unfair stigma, and while you do that, I’m going to go see if my health insurance covers cirrhosis of the liver and rehab.