From the Vine

The Proposed Boston Alcohol Tax: What You Need to Know

This week, City Council President Bill Linehan has been holding hearings on a proposed 2% tax that would be assessed on alcohol purchases within the city of Boston. The taxes would be used to fund substance abuse recovery programs. The first of two hearings was held this week on Beacon Hill.

Here is what you need to know:

– Alcohol is already heavily taxed in Massachusetts. It’s taxed when it leaves its place of origin, and then it is taxed when it is brought into the state. These taxes are already passed on to you in the price of the alcohol you purchase. I am not clear if this existing state tax is designated for substance abuse (but I presume not).

– The proposed tax is just for the city of Boston. Massachusetts already tried to levy an alcohol tax a few years ago, which was then easily defeated by voters.

– As tax payers, we are not being asked to vote on this tax. Instead, it is being pushed through in a “home-rule petition” and its sponsors have been very quietly moving this forward. You aren’t being asked for your opinion now, nor will you be in the future.

So let’s talk about this. I like Bill Linehan very much. He was supportive and easy to work with when we were applying for our South End liquor license. By all accounts, he’s been a very good city councilor. And it is clear he is genuinely concerned about the city’s addiction problems. But this tax is, in our opinion, very short-sighted and yet another nail in the coffin for retail liquor sales and restaurants in the city.

Restaurants and stores in Boston already pay higher rent than our suburban counterparts. We have to deal with parking issues, weather issues (people will still drive to a restaurant in the rain, but they won’t walk), storage issues, and other expenses that make operating a business in Boston very hard. Boston is small business friendly in theory, but in reality, it isn’t easy to run a business in this city.

Retail is dying. In the world where you can get everything on line, and with Amazon promising to make it easier and easier to never actually leave your house ever again, interesting retail shops (of all kinds) and restaurants are struggling to capture a smaller and smaller piece of the pie. Retail wine stores are also competing against direct shipping. If you recall, we at UG and, as far as I saw, no other retail wine store owners spoke against the direct shipping change. It’s the reality of the modern age, and we not only accept it but encourage the breaking down of barriers to our favorite wines. We fully supported freeing the grapes because we are confident that we offer an intangible value that you cannot get from buying wine online. But this tax is different. This tax is penalizing stores that are already working very hard to maintain their niche, and the people who patronize them.

If we add an additional tax to alcohol just in the city limits, would people in the suburbs really come into the city after fighting traffic, paying for parking, and accepting already higher prices at restaurants? Or would they just stay in Brookline and have dinner there? You know that the perception of an additional tax, no matter how small, would keep a lot of people home. Moreover, if you live in the city, with its already high taxes and cost of living, do you want to add another luxury tax just for the opportunity to live here?

The $20M in proposed revenue from this tax would be used for substance abuse treatment. This state as a whole is struggling with a huge opiate and addiction problem, we all know that. TJ and I drive the corner of Melnea Cass and Mass Ave every day. It’s heart-breaking that so many people are struggling with addiction. It is frustrating to watch their addiction on display right in front of our eyes. Additionally, functional and not-so-functional alcoholism is a reality everyone in our industry deals with every day. Believe me when I say we are not blind to the issues of addiction, nor do we not want to support efforts to help people find resources for their struggles.

When we did our #BostonWarm clothing drive this winter to help Boston’s homeless – most of whom were displaced when the state closed down the Long Island substance abuse center – we learned a lot about our city’s homeless and addicted population. The closure of the Long Island shelter has dispelled hundreds of people onto the street with no assistance or resources. The state isn’t going to fix this issue with $20M in revenue from an alcohol tax. This issue needs systematic reform at all levels of our state (and even federal) government to reintroduce drug awareness programming, early intervention, treatment centers, drug task forces, better community policing, and – for the addicted who are homeless – real sheltering options. This tax is a band-aid, it’s not the fix. It’s not even the beginning of the fix. It allows politicians to say they’re doing something, instead of addressing the real problems that allowed addiction to become such an overwhelming issue in our state.

Lest anyone think that we’re belly-aching about paying taxes…although we would surely be affected, this is actually a tax that YOU would be paying at the register every time you buy alcohol. So the only opinion that really matters is yours.

Let your voice be heard here. For or against, the choice is yours! (All three levels of the state government must approve this petition, despite it just being a Boston tax)

The Office of City Council President Bill Linehan

The Office of Mayor Marty Walsh

The Office of Governor Charlie Baker