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Opinion: Alcohol taxes won’t deter drinkers, but shouldn’t the industry share in prevention and care?

Less than three months from his ninth “birthday” of sobriety, someone close to me died of alcoholism. After years of working his own program and helping others manage their way through a 12-step program — including counseling people from teenagers to hardened prisoners — he dropped dead as he was closing in on being an “old-timer” in Alcoholics Anonymous.

No, he didn’t fall off the wagon during those eight years, nine months and seven days. But his doctor was adamant that alcohol killed him.

In The Denver Post series “Colorado’s Quiet Killer,” about the rise in alcohol consumption in Colorado and its dangerous effects, reporter Meg Wingerter’s one line struck me hardest: “Experts fear Coloradans’ heavier drinking since 2020 will continue to exact a deadly cost in the years to come.” The series noted that deaths from alcohol in the state increased by more than 60% between 2018 and 2021.

We must get help to those in need quickly. The introduction of a bill earlier this month is a promising and big step toward reducing our state’s alcohol problem. It would “collect a fee from alcohol producers and wholesalers” with 80% of the money gathered put into treatment and recovery. My loved one was lucky he had a company that valued its employees and covered his 30-day hospital stay. By providing this health care, we, as a state, could demonstrate that same compassion and wisdom.

If you begin a smoking cessation program, you can read inspirational statistics about how your body and lungs may start to heal after eight hours, 24 hours, 48 hours, all the way up to 15 years. There are no guarantees, of course, but you can anticipate improvement and rejuvenation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the added risk of cancer drops in half after 10 years of cessation. But sometimes, organs can be damaged so badly they can’t bounce back — like hearts and livers doused with alcohol.

Wingerter’s series raised the crucial question: Are we doing enough to raise public awareness about the dangers of excessive drinking, and are public policies in place to support those suffering from alcoholism who want to live another 10 years for their children and their spouses? Some legislators are stepping up to say we can do more, as Wingerter reported on March 13. Sen. Kevin Priola, D-Henderson, introduced the Alcohol Impact & Recovery Enterprise (Senate Bill 181) to collect fees to be used for treatment and recovery, as well as prevention and dealing with the fallout that society faces, including fetal alcohol disorders and DUI enforcement.

This bill has the potential to impact — and save — many lives. It is the right thing to do to protect the welfare of our residents, whether they are drinkers or bystanders. Hurt people hurt people.

Few have a bigger dog in this hunt than I did many years ago. But talking about alcoholism and alcohol deaths (whether it’s medical, suicide, or accident) and advocating for treatment options is far different than calling for prohibition or excessive taxes or the death of a multibillion-dollar industry with deep roots in Colorado.

As a young adult, I began attending open AA meetings with my loved one. I wasn’t there to work the program or learn — I thought — so much as to socialize, help make the coffee and serve the monthly birthday cakes. But hearing people share about their drinking made me lose interest in over-imbibing.

Taxes won’t cure alcoholism. My loved one was an old-school 12-stepper and didn’t think anything could cure it. But he was proof it can be treated. And we, as a state, can enable that care.

And this isn’t just about alcoholism. There are all kinds of drinkers, in my experience. Some heavy drinkers can walk away from alcohol with no withdrawal symptoms, but they like to “party” hard and often. Happy drunks, mean drunks, quiet drunks and loud drunks are still at risk of injuring themselves, still capable of killing from behind the wheel, and still capable of damaging their bodies beyond repair.

Is that message getting lost? Does the industry have a responsibility to do more messaging? Yes. It was awareness that changed my attitude toward drinking.

If legislators can create programs that will increase responsibility in alcohol use or reduce drinking by Coloradans (and they should), taxes on alcohol should fund that effort. Like many, I’m not a fan of new taxes and fees, and I believe using taxes as a deterrent meets the definition of a nanny state. But this bill has given me hope.

My loved one would often have to remind me that the second “A” in AA stands for anonymity. The tradition of anonymity in recovery was very important to him, but in a small community where everyone knew everyone’s business, he lived his life as an example.

Many people cite personal responsibility when it comes to drinking. He would have agreed. But he also would have been the first to offer a hand up.

TJ Hutchinson is an editor at The Denver Post who compiles and edits The Open Forum every week.

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