Higher Alcohol Taxes Lead to Fewer Drunk-Driving Deaths
A new study has found that raising alcohol taxes in Illinois was associated with a decrease in drunk-driving deaths and suggests that raising taxes around the country could save thousands of lives per year.
In 2012, over 10,300 people died in crashes involving alcohol-impaired driving in the U.S., accounting for just under a third of all traffic-related deaths, which translates to one death from drunk-driving about every 51 minutes. Although the new study can’t establish a cause-and-effect relationship, the evidence it provides is fairly compelling, and given the multitude of other risks associated with excessive drinking, more states raising alcohol taxes could be a boon for public health.
Drunk Driving: The Facts
Drunk driving is defined as being in control of a motor vehicle while having a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher, although in reality even a BAC of 0.05 percent leads to impairment that impacts your ability to drive safely. According to self-reports, around 112 million U.S. adults report alcohol-impaired driving each year. Although everybody driving under the influence of alcohol is at increased risk of injuring or killing themselves or others on the road, young people have a greater risk of being involved in a crash at any level of BAC than older people. In 2012, about a third of drunk drivers involved in fatal crashes were aged 21 to 24, 27 percent were aged 25 to 34 and 24 percent were aged 35 to 44.
Increasing Alcohol Taxes Reduces Drunk-Driving Deaths
The study set out to examine the effect of Illinois’ 2009 alcohol tax increase on alcohol-related fatal motor vehicle crashes. The researchers used results of blood-alcohol tests conducted on drivers for the study, looking at the evidence from the 104 months before the tax increase and the 28 months afterward.
The results showed that fatal alcohol-related crashes in the state decreased by 26 percent after the increase in taxes, or a decline of 9.9 deaths per month. The results differed slightly according to how impaired the drivers were, with a 22-percent decrease in drivers with a BAC of 0.15 percent or lower and a 25 percent decrease in drivers with a BAC of over 0.15 percent—classified as extremely drunk drivers. Notably, the results showed that the effect was largest in drivers under age 30, who showed a 37-percent decline in fatal crashes, compared to a decline of 23 percent for drivers 30 or over.
The study’s lead author, Alexander Wagenaar, commented: “While our study confirms what dozens of earlier studies have found—that an increase in alcohol taxes reduces drinking and reduces alcohol-related health problems—what is unique is that we identified that alcohol taxes do in fact impact the whole range of drinking drivers, including extremely drunk drivers. This goes against the conventional wisdom of many economists, who assert that heavy drinkers are less responsive to tax changes, and has powerful implications for how we can keep our communities safer.”
The study provides fairly compelling evidence that increasing taxes brings down the rate of alcohol-impaired driving deaths, but it’s important to note that the type of research can only establish an association rather than confirm a causal relationship between increased taxes and decreased drunk-driving deaths. It could be that other factors—public health campaigns or improved policing, for example—are having an effect on the number of deaths, but the fact that the decline coincided with the increase in tax is very suggestive.
Overall, it does seem reasonable to conclude that increasing alcohol taxes could reduce drunk-driving deaths, and in Illinois the increase wasn’t even particularly big. In 2009, Illinois increased the tax on beer by 4.6 cents per gallon, increased the tax on wine by 66 cents per gallon and on spirits by $4.05 per gallon. If the entire increase in taxes went straight to the consumer—which it doesn’t—the increased cost per drink would be less than a cent for beer and wine, and just 4.8 cents for a serving of spirits.
The authors point out that the cost of alcohol has decreased in recent decades when considered as a proportion of income. For example, in the 1950s, consuming over 10 drinks per day would have cost an average person about half of his or her disposable income, compared to only 3 percent in 2011. In other words, drinking now is cheaper than it has been for a very long time.
Not everybody was satisfied with the findings, as you might expect, including the Distilled Spirits Council. It argues that studies have repeatedly shown that alcohol abusers are not deterred by increases in the price of alcohol, and the moderate, responsible drinkers are the main group affected by such increases.
It seems consistent with our understanding of addiction to say that alcoholics won’t be as readily discouraged by price increases, but according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, increases in alcohol taxes do reduce drinking in frequent and heavy drinkers. Only two studies suggest that some drinkers may not be affected by price increases, and this is only the upper 5 percent of heavy drinkers. In line with the results from this study, such increases have been previously found to affect young adults more than older adults.
Pay a Little More for Safer Roads
Overall, the benefits of an increase in alcohol taxes—particularly on the number of people who die as a result of alcohol-impaired driving—seem to outweigh the limited effects on responsible drinkers who are sensitive to price. Increasing taxes wouldn’t put a stop to drunk driving or the deaths it causes, but any reasonable step that could reduce the number of deaths should be seriously considered. When the cost is just a few cents extra per drink, a 26 percent reduction in drunk-driving deaths seems well worth the investment.
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