Higher Alcohol Prices Lower Mortality

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It’s one of those things that seems too simple to be true: raising the price of alcohol leads to a dramatic drop in deaths from alcohol abuse. But a study in the journal Addiction seems to show just that.

The study looked at what are termed “AA” deaths – alcohol attributable deaths – as opposed to deaths related to alcohol use but not directly due to alcohol consumption. Wholly AA deaths are things like alcoholic gastritis, poisoning, alcoholic psychoses, alcoholic cardiomyopathy, chronic pancreatitis (alcohol induced) and fetal alcohol syndrome.

This was contrasted in the study with two other categories: “acute,” meaning an accident related to alcohol consumption, and “chronic,” diseases related to alcohol consumption but not due entirely to alcohol, like cancers or chronic liver disease.

The surprising finding was that for every 1 percent increase in retail price for alcohol, the AA deaths fell 3 percent. For a 10 percent price increase, AA deaths dropped a third.

The study took place in British Columbia and researchers had to eliminate a confounding factor – during the study period, BC changed over from government run retail sales at a few locations to a private sales system, greatly expanding the availability of alcohol. Taking this into account, the effect was still present.

Raising prices motivates chronic drinkers to reduce consumption

Researchers theorize that those most at risk for an AA-type fatality are also the most price conscious. For the chronic abuser, alcoholic beverages are a significant budget item. They typically shop for the lowest cost, highest volume as a matter of course. By raising prices, even a little, this vulnerable group is motivated to reduce consumption.

From the press release cited above:

  • - A 10 percent increase in the average minimum price for all alcoholic beverages was associated with a 32 percent reduction in wholly AA deaths
  • - Some of the effect was also detected up to a year after minimum price increases
  • - Significant reductions in chronic and total AA deaths were detected between two and three years after minimum price increases
  • - A 10 percent increase in private liquor stores was associated with a 2 percent increase in acute, chronic, and total AA mortality rates

If these results hold up, the clear path for legislators is to increase the taxes and hence the price of alcoholic beverages, not primarily to raise revenue but to save lives.

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