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Editorial: A costly vice for the state

Published: 3/21/2017 12:05:09 AM

New Hampshire is proud of its liquor stores. In a letter attached to the 2016 annual state Liquor Commission financial report, former governor Maggie Hassan said, “I want to congratulate and thank the New Hampshire Liquor Commission and its staff of more than 1,400 full- and part-time employees on yet another record-breaking year.”

She was referring to the $678.4 million in gross sales, which marked an increase of $36.3 million over the previous fiscal year. For Hassan, the numbers translated to $156 million added to the state’s general fund.

With no sales or income tax, there is no doubt New Hampshire needs the money. But we wonder how much lawmakers pay attention to the economic and societal costs of excessive drinking when deciding, for example, whether to fully fund the state’s Alcohol Abuse Prevention and Treatment Fund.

In 2012, New Futures, a New Hampshire nonprofit that advocates for policy changes that improve the health and wellness of residents, commissioned a study on the “corrosive effects” of alcohol misuse on the state’s economy. What the statistics reveal is staggering: worker productivity losses of $940 million; $285 million in annual medical care charges; $67 million in alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes; $37 million in corrections costs. The study found that alcohol played a role in 31 percent of all arrests and nearly 13 percent of all crimes committed in New Hampshire in 2012.

New Hampshire has spent a lot of time talking about the opioid epidemic in recent years, and rightfully so, but alcohol remains an expensive and deadly problem here and throughout the country.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, excessive alcohol use causes about 88,000 deaths each year in the United States, which is significantly more than the approximately 50,000 fatal drug overdoses tallied last year. Drinking has been tied to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and liver disease, as well as cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver and colon.

The CDC offers various guidelines for individuals when it comes to alcohol consumption, but it also issues recommendations for state and local governments. For example, the CDC’s Task Force on Community Preventive Services cited “sufficient evidence of a positive association between outlet density and excessive alcohol consumption and related harms.”

New Hampshire doesn’t want to hear it. Seven new liquor and wine stores opened last year and two more are on the way, including one in Warner, for a total of 81 state outlets. And that doesn’t include all the markets and restaurants that buy licenses to sell beer and wine.

One way that the state has sought to ease its conscience is the Alcohol Fund, which was established in 2000 to redirect a small percentage of alcohol profits to education, treatment and recovery programs. The fund was originally supposed to receive 5 percent of the profits, but it has been funded at that level only once. Last year just 1.7 percent, about $3.3 million, went into the fund. That’s $6.6 million for the biennium when it should have been close to $20 million.

We are not teetotalers, and we don’t believe the state should shutter all of its liquor and wine outlets. But we do believe that when New Hampshire can’t bring itself to give up even 5 percent of its record profits each year to address the negative impacts of the product it sponsors, it reveals shortsightedness that approaches malevolence.

If New Hampshire is going to peddle alcohol, it should have no illusions about its culpability in a silent epidemic.

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