Guest column: Colorado needs to hold the alcohol industry accountable for the social and financial costs of addiction

Kevin Priola
Guest column

Earlier this year, the Denver Post highlighted the impact of alcohol in the state of Colorado, and the countless advocates who dedicate themselves to addressing the very real harm alcohol addiction causes. The state legislature and the alcohol industry were rightfully called out because of our silence in the face of the most misused drug in Colorado — an enterprise fee is one way we can make things right.

Chances are, someone you know and love struggles with alcohol misuse — Colorado consistently tops the charts on problematic drinking. Colorado is the sixth highest in the nation for alcohol-induced deaths. Over half of all Coloradans have had at least one drink in the past 30 days, and we’re the ninth highest in binge drinking. One in three fatal car accidents were caused by impaired driving, with alcohol being the biggest contributor. A newly introduced bill dedicates an enterprise fee to building and supporting the systems we have in place to prevent, treat and recover from alcohol misuse.

Fees for the cannabis and tobacco industries here in Colorado fund prevention initiatives and education programs, which are both protective factors against substance use disorders. Studies overwhelmingly support that raising the price of alcohol is an effective prevention strategy. The enterprise fee does this and more — we’ll create sustainable funding for substance use programs across the state. That means more robust programs that encourage healthy decision-making, treatment options in underserved areas and a stigma-free Colorado that supports all pathways to recovery.

Did you know the alcohol industry paid only $55 million in taxes and fees in Colorado last year? Meanwhile, the tobacco and cannabis industries both paid upwards of $200 million. That number seems low, right? It’s by design — nationally, the alcohol industry spent almost $29 million last year in lobbying efforts to keep their profit margins wide and to ensure the impacts on their market value are minimal.

In comparison, the new enterprise fee can only collect a predetermined, minimal fee — a drop in the bucket for an industry that makes billions of dollars a year. This fee will make the alcohol industry pay their fair share — something that’s long overdue, considering the alcohol industry hasn’t seen any increases in Colorado since 1981, which is something Americans overwhelmingly support — especially if the goal is to support people who need help the most.

The alcohol industry wants you to think they’re harmed by increased fees, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The alcohol industry saw sales soar during the pandemic — especially thanks to the proliferation of alcohol delivery and take-out services. And they haven’t seen a huge hit — after the pandemic, their sales plateaued. And when adjusted for inflation, fees have overall decreased for the alcohol industry.

One representative from the Distilled Spirits Council said that the state needs to focus on referring people who need help to treatment, but that’s part of the problem: We need to stop waiting until the problem is out of control before we do something about it. We are failing people by letting them fall through the cracks.

Also, it’s hard to refer to treatment when treatment is virtually non-existent outside of the Front Range. A lot of these programs serve people who don’t have cash to burn, so we can’t expect treatment organizations to conjure up money out of thin air. The alcohol industry needs to stop shrugging off the issue of disordered drinking and start contributing to the solution.

An increase in fees will never cover the true cost of addiction: the lost opportunities, lost time and lost loved ones, but we can do so much better for the people of Colorado. We have to. It’s time to stop letting the alcohol industry line their pockets with the struggles of everyday Coloradans and hold them responsible for covering some of the social and financial costs of addiction. The state needs more robust substance use solutions, and here’s an opportunity to fund them — we all can do better for our communities by passing this enterprise fee.

This guest column was written by Sen. Kevin Priola, who serves in the Colorado Senate from the 13th District. He has introduced SB24-181 Alcohol Impact & Recovery Enterprise to be scheduled for the Finance Committee.

Kevin Priola
Courtesy photo

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