Alcohol Fee Hard to Swallow

The city's most hard-up drunks do not resemble the folks who'd be funding their treatment under 'Charge For Harm'
Much argumentation -- drunken and sober -- has been made over the "Charge for Harm," the proposed fee on alcoholic beverages the city's Budget and Finance Committee will once again discuss implementing today.

Bar and restaurant owners have said the idea -- which would place a fee of just under eight cents for every ounce of alcohol sold in the city -- would be a "job killer" and cut into their bottom line. The folks at the anti-alcohol Marin Institute say the $16-odd million the fee aims to raise will cut into the "alcohol-related harms" burdening the city. And the stiffs sitting at the bar or picking up a six-pack at the market are probably thinking that an extra nickel or quarter to help out the city's hardest-up drunks isn't so much to pay.

It's not -- and, should the fee become a reality, your humble narrator will pay it. But the principal objection to this fee is how horribly insulting it is. It charges Friday-night tipplers and folks buying a bottle of wine at Safeway to look out for the city's most desperate, dysfunctional alcoholics -- and thereby equates all drinkers as part of the same continuum.

At this point, it warrants mentioning that the detox centers the "Charge For Harm" would help support are eminently worthwhile. Sending a desperate alcoholic there costs about $300; a night in the emergency room can cost 10 times that -- and the ride to the ER in an ambulance can also cost thousands of dollars. These centers save the city money.

But these centers are not stocked with people who began the night drinking craft beers at a brewpub or doing shots with their work buddies after-hours. These folks are 9 a.m. drunks who go to liquor stores and buy large bottles of potent booze to get loaded and stay loaded. Charging casual drinkers to fund their treatment makes about as much sense as dinging folks who buy Playboy magazine in order to keep the doors open in centers that aid victims of sex crimes.

It would be inhumane to allow the city's most desperate drunks to die in the streets -- and it would be uselessly expensive and morally bankrupt to simply haul them off to a hospital or jail cell. These detox centers deserve the city's support. But it makes little sense that care and funding of serial, hard-up alcoholics is more the burden of someone who occasionally frequents a bar or grocery store than society in general.

Keeping these people from dying -- and bringing them back to a more dignified life -- is something every San Franciscan should support. Regardless of whether there's a six-pack in your fridge.

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