89.9 FM Live From The University Of New Mexico
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

NM lawmakers fail to take substantive action on nation’s highest alcohol-related death rate


New Mexico has the highest rate of alcohol-related deaths in the nation and the situation has gotten even worse since the pandemic. Despite this, state lawmakers this session failed to pass any substantive measures to curb the crisis. Public health reporter Ted Alcorn has long covered the issue for New Mexico in Depth. He spoke with KUNM about a debate over whether and how to change the way the state taxes alcohol. Democrats filed competing bills this year, neither of which got to the governor.

TED ALCORN: The approach that was expected came from Rep. Joanne Ferrary and her co-sponsors in the Senate, Sen. Antonette Sedillo Lopez and Sen. Shannon Pinto. [It was] very similar to one they'd brought last year to raise alcohol taxes 25 cents per drink. And the argument is, if you tax alcohol a little bit more, you'll marginally reduce the amount that people consume, particularly that people consume in excess. This year was different because there was another bill being discussed — one brought by Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, Cristina Parajón and Derrick lente, who hold very influential roles in the tax committee and therefore have sort of the upper hand in what kind of tax policies get passed. They weren't interested in raising alcohol taxes so much as making them more fair. And, according to their views, the unfairness in the existing alcohol taxes lies in the fact that they fall heaviest on people with the lowest income. Four cents is more for somebody with lower income than somebody at a higher income. So, the basics of their proposal were: Let's instead change our alcohol taxes from one that's calculated by the volume of alcohol to one that's calculated as a percentage of its price. Kind of like a sales tax. Expensive alcohol would be taxed really heavily under their proposal, whereas taxes on cheap alcohols would almost surely be lower. It was less about raising the revenue than sort of shifting where the tax burden falls and on who.

KUNM: And if we can look closer at this public health argument that raising the cost will lower alcohol consumption, it's not one that's universally accepted. What was the debate we heard this year about how it might, or might not, impact behavior?

ALCORN: There's a huge body of science suggesting that alcohol taxes do reduce consumption. But there definitely is debate over how it would affect different groups differently. Whether alcohol taxes would actually affect the behavior of people who have the greatest dependency on alcohol. In other words, would people that have trouble quitting really be deterred by an additional 25 cents per drink? One other sticking point was there wasn't good science on how alcohol taxes affect Hispanic, African American and Indigenous peoples. And I've talked to some alcohol tax experts out there and they agree. They say it's a huge gap in the literature. But they also were really clear that reducing alcohol taxes, particularly for the lowest-cost alcohol, is very likely to increase consumption and aggravate the state's alcohol harms.

KUNM: Speaking of alcohol harms, the stakes for this debate are incredibly high. New Mexico has long struggled with the highest rate of alcohol-related deaths in the nation. That rate has increased since the pandemic. You highlighted some of those numbers in your 2022 Blind Drunk series for New Mexico in Depth. As yet another effort to change the alcohol tax has failed, how is the state addressing this crisis?

ALCORN: Last year was the third year in a row that more than 2,000 New Mexicans died of alcohol-related causes. And this year is just one in a series of years where lawmakers ended up passing no substantive bill related to alcohol. The governor has touted a new Office of Alcohol Prevention that she asked her Health Department to set up. But, last I checked, they'd only hired one of the 11 positions that they're allotted, and they have not been able to articulate any clear or aggressive strategy for reducing alcohol-related harms in the state. So, if existing trends continue, we should expect next year's mortality figures to reflect our continuing ranking at the bottom of the heap.

KUNM: When the tax bills failed in the House tax committee this year, Chair Derrick Lente said that they needed to take the issue up before the next session, in the interim, to make sure they "got it right." Is there any sense of what the future of this push could look like?

ALCORN: It'll be interesting to see if these groups can reconcile their approaches. And, keep in mind, this is just one of many tools in the toolkit for addressing alcohol-related harms. Some places have experimented with putting stronger and bolder labels or warning labels on alcohol. And that can potentially have an impact on people making better choices for themselves and their health. And these kinds of population-based measures are the ones that public health folks say are the most effective. Although, the state also has a huge need to increase the amount of resources for alcohol and substance abuse treatment and make sure that the tens of thousands of New Mexicans with alcohol-related disorders can also get the services that they need to help reduce their consumption.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
Related Content