The products and practices of the alcohol industry are wreaking havoc in Oregon, United States (U.S.). Currently, Oregon is one of the federal states with the most craft distilleries and wineries. Oregon also has one of the highest rates of heavy alcohol use in the country.
Alcohol use and harm further increased during the COVID-19 pandemic across the nation.
- A JAMA Network Journal study from September 2020 reported that alcohol consumption was up by 14% in 2020 compared to 2019.
- The U.S. Treasury Department reports alcohol tax revenues increased by 8% in the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2021 – indicating rising alcohol sales.
This rise in alcohol use has increased alcohol deaths in the United States. Alcohol deaths in the U.S. have been rising for some time now. There are over 140,000 deaths caused annually by alcohol nationwide. In 2020 alcohol deaths increased by 25% compared to the previous year.
These are all figures illustrating a national emergency that remains ignored by law makers and the government.
Dramatic levels of alcohol harm in Oregon
Oregon is one of the states that have been hardest hit by the rising alcohol deaths in the nation.
The Oregon Health Authority reports that 2,153 people died due to alcohol-attributable causes in 2021. This is more than double the deaths caused by methamphetamines, heroin, and fentanyl combined.
In Oregon, after adjusting for age, alcohol-induced deaths increased 2.5 times from 1999 to 2020.
Worsening of alcohol policies in Oregon
Despite the heavy and rising alcohol burden in Oregon, alcohol policy has been worsened during the pandemic. Instead of a public health approach to alcohol policy, law makers in Oregon put the interests of the alcohol industry for. Oregon is one of the states that introduced cocktails-to-go laws during the COVID-19 pandemic and then made these laws permanent. This law allowed pickup and home delivery of alcohol by on-premise alcohol sales places such as restaurants, bars, and pubs.
Among the rising toll caused by alcohol, law makers increased alcohol availability, instead of protecting people and communities through improving alcohol policy in the state. It is one of the key reasons why alcohol use started increasing sharply during the pandemic in Oregon and the United States. Oregon also increased the number of cases that wineries could ship directly to consumers.
Reginald Richardson, director of Oregon’s Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission has said these policies that increased alcohol availability in the state are incongruent with public health and the needs of the community.
This policy and public health disconnect is not only seen in Oregon. It’s common across the U.S. As Movendi International has reported, 35 U.S. states implemented cocktails-to-go measures and 18 states and Washington DC made the laws permanent while 14 others extended these weakening of alcohol laws.
Albeit alcohol taxes being the most cost-effective and impactful alcohol policy solution to reduce alcohol use and prevent harm, in 2019 U.S. Congress extended a major tax break given to the alcohol industry. This resulted in billions of dollars in loss for the government.
The impact of inadequate alcohol policies on Oregon communities and the lack of political action
Dr. Eric Roth, chief of emergency medicine at Kaiser Permanente’s two hospitals in the Portland area of Oregon estimates that 10 to 30% of his patients had illnesses and injuries at least partly related to alcohol.
The state of Oregon primarily focuses on education and treatment to tackle substance use problems, including alcohol use problems. This summer, a statewide campaign was launched called “Rethink the Drink”. However, this method is not effective in the absence of alcohol policy solutions, such as increased taxes and common sense limits to alcohol availability.
Dr. Tim Naimi, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria says only education and treatment are not adequate interventions to tackle alcohol harm. The state needs improved alcohol policy solutions to prevent harm rather than education campaigns that are ineffective by themselves and treatment which only helps after harm has been caused.
Measures to prevent [heavy alcohol use] are less costly and more effective,” said Dr. Tim Naimi, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria, as per The New York Times.
If you want to talk prevention, you’ve got to talk policies.”Dr. Tim Naimi, director, Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, University of Victoria
Alcohol taxes can save lives in Oregon
The most impactful, well proven and cost-effective alcohol policy solution is increasing alcohol taxes. This is one of the aBest Buy alcohol policy measures recommended by the World Health Organization and included in their SAFER technical package to reduce alcohol harm.
This would be a very effective measure in the U.S. and in Oregon since alcohol products have gotten increasingly affordable over the years. According to one study, as a share of average household income, a can of Budweiser in 2010 cost one-fifth and the cheapest liquor one-fifteenth of what it did in 1950 after adjusting for inflation.
A study from Boston University School of Public Health found that inflation has eroded U.S. alcohol tax rates by 70% since 1933.
Scientific evidence shows that increasing alcohol taxes leads to lower alcohol use and decreases alcohol-related death and disease. Case studies from Illinois and Maryland show raising alcohol taxes led to decreasing binge alcohol use and driving under the influence (DUI) crashes.
There’s just no question that the tax rate affects how much people [use alcohol], and the effect then ripples through to a really wide range of alcohol-related problems,” said Alex Wagenaar, a professor emeritus at the University of Florida College of Medicine, as per The New York Times.Alex Wagenaar, professor emeritus, University of Florida College of Medicine
Big Alcohol policy influence in Oregon
Oregon continues to have extremely low taxes on alcohol products; less than 3 cents per glass of wine and not even a penny per 12-ounce beer. Efforts to increase these taxes have systematically been thwarted by the highly organized and well-funded Big Alcohol lobby.
Max Williams, a state legislator between 1999 and 2003 tried but failed to increase alcohol taxes in the state. He noted that wine taxes have not changed since 1983, nor have beer taxes since 1977.
Like in many U.S. states, Oregon sets alcohol taxes by the volume of the beverage and not as a percentage of its price so inflation erodes the tax rate over the years.
Over the last 45 years, Oregon’s beer tax has lost 80% of its value.
Last year, Oregon Recovers, a nonprofit advocacy organization, renewed its efforts to raise alcohol taxes in the state. State Representative Tawna Sanchez sponsored the bill which proposed a tax increase of $0.21 on a 12-ounce beer and $0.40 on a glass of wine.
Despite receiving the support of the State Health Authority the bill was shot down due to aggressive lobbying from the alcohol industry. The alcohol lobby called the tax raise “extreme” claiming it was a 2700% increase and hiding the fact that tax rates have eroded to make alcohol ultra cheap in Oregon. The bill did not go past the first legislative committee.
As Movendi International reported recently, Big Alcohol deployed very similar tactics in the state of New Mexico to kill a bill to raise alcohol taxes there.
The alcohol lobby group The Oregon Beverage Political Action Committee that opposed the bill gave more than $500,000 in campaign contributions to local politicians since 2020.
The alcohol industry’s influence has made policymakers go against the public interest and public health goals in Oregon. Just last year Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon led efforts to permanently lower federal alcohol taxes. He was named a “Beer Champion” by an alcohol industry group.
Urgent alcohol policy action needed to protect people and communities in Oregon
The federal government has not paid alcohol harm the attention it should either. In February, the Treasury Department released a report on the market for beer, wine and spirits. David Jernigan, a professor at Boston University School of Public Health, pointed out that the report “entirely ignored” public health and focused only on reducing regulatory barriers and fostering more competition in alcohol production.
Alcohol policy advocacy action is also wanting in the United States. Major philanthropic organizations do not significantly invest in advancing alcohol policy solutions. The U.S. Alcohol Policy Alliance is one of the only dedicated alcohol policy advocacy groups in the country and it only has an annual budget of less than $50,000 and a single paid staff member.
Amidst heavy alcohol industry lobbying, advocacy efforts to raise alcohol taxes are rare and thwarted quickly, such as the 2017 effort in New Mexico and the 2020 efforts in Hawaii.
Oregon Recovers and its executive director, Mike Marshall have not backed down and continue the uphill battle for increasing state alcohol taxes. State Representative Tawna Sanchez is now the head of a legislative committee overseeing state budget policy and says she will continue to pursue increased alcohol taxes as well, specifically because of her own experience in recovery.