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21-03-2012 | Psychology | Article

Alcohol tax increase could cut heavy drinking


Free abstract

MedWire News: A very small increase in alcohol tax would have a significant impact on rates of heavy drinking, US study findings suggest.

Increasing alcohol tax by just US$ 0.25 (€ 0.19) per drink would decrease rates of heavy drinking by more than 10%, estimate Timothy Naimi (Boston Medical Center, Massachusetts) and colleagues in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

This would result in a "substantial public health benefit for a behavior that currently leads to approximately 79,000 deaths annually in the US," the researchers remark.

"However, it is likely that the morbidity and mortality benefits would exceed those suggested by the change in consumption, because absolute consumption would decrease most among those who drink the most and who incur most alcohol-attributable consequences," they add.

Naimi and co-authors explain that although alcohol taxation is an effective measure to reduce excessive alcohol consumption and related harm, some argue that increasing alcohol taxes places an unfair economic burden on "responsible" drinkers and socially disadvantaged people.

To investigate whether this is the case, the researchers examined the financial impact of a hypothetic US$ 0.25 alcohol tax increase on the basis of alcohol consumption and sociodemographic characteristics of current drinkers. The study was based on "core" alcohol questions from the 2008 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey.

Higher-risk drinkers were defined as those whose who reported binge drinking (≥5 drinks for men or ≥4 drinks for women per occasion), heavy drinking (average daily consumption of >2 drinks for men and >1 drink for women), drinking in excess of the US Dietary Guidelines (≥3 drinks for men or ≥2 drinks in women on drinking days), or alcohol-impaired driving (ie, a person who drove after having "perhaps too much to drink"). People who did not meet these criteria were classed as lower-risk drinkers.

Of US adults who consumed alcohol in the past 30 days, 50.4% (or approximately 25% of the total US population) were classified as higher-risk drinkers.

The researchers state that increasing the price of alcohol through taxation decreases consumption based on the price elasticity of demand for alcohol, which is -0.5. Using this figure, they calculated that, as a result of the tax increase, current drinkers would reduce their annual consumption from 319.1 to 289.7 drinks per year, which corresponds to a relative reduction of 9.2%.

Among heavy drinkers, the tax increase would reduce annual consumption by 58.6 drinks annually, and result in an 11.4% relative reduction in heavy drinking.

Compared with lower-risk drinkers, higher-risk drinkers would pay 4.7 times more in net additional taxes per year ($ 114 [€ 86] vs $ 24 [€ 18]).

"This result demonstrates that even though alcohol taxes are applied to all drinks… they cost higher-risk drinkers considerably more than lower-risk drinkers because of how skewed alcohol consumption is in the US," say Naimi and co-authors.

Among the sociodemographic subgroups of lower-risk drinkers, none would pay more than $ 35 (€ 26; among retired people) per year in net increased taxes, the researchers note. This compares with a maximum increase of $ 163 (€ 123; among those with the lowest education level) among the higher-risk drinkers.

The additional net tax revenue was approximately $ 7.9 billion (€ 6.0 billion) annually, and 82.7% of this would be paid by higher-risk drinkers.

"Having higher-risk drinkers pay far more than lower-risk drinkers not only is desirable from a fairness perspective but results in larger absolute reductions in consumption among higher-risk drinkers, which is desirable from a public health perspective," Naimi et al conclude.

By Laura Cowen

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