Maine has a serious drug problem, but it’s not just the one you have been hearing about.

Yes, heroin is a scourge responsible for 28 deaths in the state last year, but alcohol likely killed more than 500, and that is a lowball estimate.

In 2010, there were 713 substance abuse-related deaths in Maine, according to a study released last year by the state Office of Substance Abuse. Of those, 175 were attributed to all drugs, including prescription painkillers, and 538 resulted from the use of alcohol.

The same study found that approximately 80,000 Maine people had an alcohol abuse disorder, while 29,500 had a problem with all other drugs combined.

Alcohol is by far our most abused drug and one of our most expensive social problems. More than any other substance, it contributes to domestic violence, sexual assault, homicide, suicide, birth defects and accidental deaths by falling, drowning and in fires – not to mention deaths on the highways.

There is no argument that can be made for a stepped-up war on drugs that cannot be made more emphatically for a battle against booze, but here we are in an election year talking about getting tough on drug dealers.

On Monday, Gov. LePage rolled out his plan to hire more prosecutors, judges and police officers to fight illegal drugs in Maine. Fine. But if he were really serious about reducing human misery, he would be calling for a big hike in the tax on alcohol.

Adding a dime to the cost of a beer, glass of wine or mixed drink would raise revenue to support the police, medical, child protective and other services that hard-core drinking imposes on society. It would also discourage some people from drinking, especially young people, or cause them to drink less.

And based on national averages, a 10-cent bump to the drink tax would put about $80 million in the state coffers every year – just about the size of the current budget deficit.

There are a number of differences between alcohol and illegal drugs that have to be considered.

First, alcohol is legal and the other drugs are not. That means alcohol is made and sold by honest members of our communities, not killers or drug lords. And while there is no safe dose of heroin or crack, alcohol is benign when it’s used in moderation, the way it is used by millions of people every day. In fact, studies have shown that drinking a small amount of alcohol is better for you than drinking none at all.

But because it is legal, the government can control its abuse by controlling its price.

On average, Americans have 600 servings of alcohol per year. If you charged a dime every time one of those drinks were sold, the average person would pay about $60 annually.

But most people would never pay anywhere near that much. People who don’t drink at all, including children, would pay nothing.

People who had a glass of wine every night with dinner would pay about $30 a year, an amount, paid out a dime at a time, that most of them would hardly notice.

But since a small percentage of heavy drinkers buy most of the drinks, they would pay most of the tax.

And since they are also the people who burden the police departments, jails, prisons, hospitals and social services that we all support, it makes sense to make them pay more.

The hard-core abusers who spend every last dime on beer would have fewer dimes to spend, forcing them to reduce their consumption.

Duke University professor Philip J. Cook made the case for increasing the national drink tax in his article “A Free Lunch” in the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis.

He argues that all but the heaviest drinkers would come out ahead financially. “(And) since the tax would have the . . . benefit of reducing alcohol abuse, the public at large would also benefit from increased safety, lower insurance rates, and general improvements in public health.”

If that sounds too socialist for you, consider this statement: “It is often assumed, incorrectly, that the affected worker or individual incurs all of the costs for his or her behavior. However, productivity loss due to alcohol and drug abuse or dependence creates an economic loss borne by society at large.”

Those words were written not by Karl Marx, but by the LePage administration’s Office of Substance Abuse.

The state needs to fight all drug abuse from both the supply and demand sides, but it should not forget the biggest and most expensive drug problem.

It’s alcohol, and it demands more attention.

 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at gkesich@pressherald.com