Drunks draining taxpayer dollars 

San Francisco taxpayers pay more than $18 million a year to transport and care for drunken people across The City, according to a study made public this week that makes the case for a fee on alcoholic beverages.

The largest portion of the tab left behind by alcoholics is about $6.5 million in direct treatment costs for the Department of Public Health while another $2.1 million goes directly to prevention efforts.

Fire Department paramedics also transport thousands of people who are passed out on the streets every year. The costs of transporting them to sobering centers or the hospital adds up to about $4 million, with about 6 percent of patients actually paying the tab. That number doesn’t include private ambulance companies, which account for one-fifth of The City’s transports.

Public health is bearing the largest brunt of an unprecedented $438 million budget deficit while the Fire Department has given up salary concessions and properties to balance its books. Supervisor John Avalos in June proposed that some of those costs be recouped by imposing a fee of about 5 cents on each alcoholic beverage sold in The City.

The study by The Lewin Group released this week was commissioned by The City to draw a direct link to alcohol and its ill health effects. Without the study, the fee would be considered a tax and would require voter approval.

“Costs are likely to be under-estimated since we used conservative assumptions throughout the study,” according to the research group. “Non health care costs — such as alcohol-related costs of criminal justice, child protection and policing and law enforcement — were not included.”

The alcohol fee would be imposed on alcohol wholesalers, but the costs will then be passed on to restaurants, bars, hotels and ultimately, to consumers, according to opponents of the plan such as the California Alliance for Hospitality Jobs.

The higher costs will lead to reduced sales, which will ultimately burden bars, restaurants and small business owners in San Francisco where tourism is the No. 1 industry, said the organization’s spokesman, Matt Klink. “We’ve been waiting for the nexus study for two to three weeks,” Klink said. “We’re reviewing it, but our opposition remains as strong or stronger than ever.”

Avalos said he has met with small business owners, as well as restaurant and bar workers, and found many supportive of the idea.

“I have talked with retailers and expressed that this fee is coming at the wholesaler level,” Avalos said. “That has alleviated some concerns over the kind of paperwork that you need to do as a business owner.” The fee goes before the Small Business Commission on Monday and will be heard by the Board of Supervisors later this month.

The larger cost

A city-sponsored study from The Lewin Group took state averages and city data and broke down the health costs of alcohol abuse:

356,837,146: Alcoholic drinks consumed in the City in 2009

87.7%: San Franciscans of drinking age

7.7%: City deaths caused primarily by alcohol

32.7%: Vehicular deaths where alcohol was present

Non-vehicular accidental deaths with alcohol was present

25%: Suicides where alcohol was present

31.8%: Homicide victims with alcohol present

Total costs to be recouped by fee

$17,664,162: Costs attributable to alcohol

$462,332: Annual administrative costs of fee


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Brent Begin

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