Just in time for New Year’s Eve celebrations, German Lopez wrote about alcohol research and policy:
According to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after controlling for age, the alcohol-induced death rate reached 8.5 per 100,000 people in 2014, up from 7.1 in 1999 and 7 in 2006.
As a result, nearly 31,000 people died by alcohol in 2014, up from 22,000 in 2006. That means more people died to alcohol in 2014 than the nearly 29,000 who died from opioid — including heroin — overdoses, but fewer than the nearly 34,000 who died to gun violence or car crashes that same year.
Still, the 2014 data likely under-counts alcohol-related deaths, since it only includes deaths induced directly by alcohol, like liver cirrhosis. It doesn’t include deaths from drunk driving, other accidents, and homicides committed under the influence (alcohol is linked to 40 percent of violent crimes). Counting those deaths, alcohol’s death toll in the US reached 88,000, according to the CDC — and that’s before accounting for the recent rise in alcohol-induced deaths shown in the chart above. All together, this puts alcohol behind only tobacco, which is by far the deadliest drug in the US, in terms of total drug deaths.
…Why are alcohol-induced deaths on the rise?
…For one, Americans are drinking more. According to the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of Americans who reportedly drank in the previous month slightly increased as alcohol-induced deaths did: from 51 percent of all persons 12 and older in 2006, when deaths began to climb, to 52.7 percent in 2014.
…But why are people drinking more? …alcohol is more affordable than ever: According to a 2013 study…as a result of rising incomes and falling prices, alcohol is more affordable than it has been in 60 years. And …most US alcohol taxes aren’t indexed for inflation.
…[Secondly, the] opioid painkiller and heroin epidemic could have made alcohol deadlier. When taken together, alcohol and opioids interact to intensify each other and make each other more dangerous. So it’s possible that alcohol deaths rose as more people used — and died from — opioids throughout the 2000s, and many of those deaths [may have been] counted as alcohol-induced deaths in the CDC data.
Another factor could be greater use of the anti-anxiety medication, benzodiazepine. …these drugs were prescribed more and more throughout the 2000s. Since benzos can intensify alcohol’s effects, it’s possible they [caused] more alcohol-induced deaths in the same way opioids might have.
…Many, many studies, for example, have found benefits from a much higher alcohol tax. A recent review of the research from David Roodman, senior adviser for the Open Philanthropy Project, made a case for a higher alcohol tax:
[H]igher prices… cause less drinking. A rough rule of thumb is that each 1 percent increase in alcohol price reduces drinking by 0.5 percent. …I estimate …a 10 percent price increase would cut the [cirrhosis] death rate 9-25 percent. For the US in 2010, this represents 2,000-6,000 averted deaths/year.
…So for the US, boosting alcohol prices 10 percent could save as many as 6,000 lives each year. To put that in context, paying about 50 cents more for a six-pack of Bud Light could save thousands of lives. And this is a conservative estimate, since it only counts alcohol-related liver cirrhosis deaths — the number of lives saved would be [almost three times] higher if it accounted for deaths due to alcohol-related violence and car crashes.
This estimate of the social cost of alcohol is still too conservative because it doesn’t count alcoholism-related crime, accidents, lost productivity, and family breakdown. Alcohol causes a lot of domestic abuse that falls short of murder and is left out of the numbers above.
A 10% increase in alcohol prices causes a smaller decrease in alcohol consumption (5%), because alcohol is addictive and so its demand is inelastic. Even so, a mere 5% reduction in alcohol use reduces the number of alcohol deaths by a large amount (up to 20%) because of the diminishing marginal utility of alcohol. The marginal social utility of excessive drinking is negative, so a small reduction has a big benefit. If everyone only drank one drink of alcohol per day, alcohol wouldn’t be a significant problem and it might even increase average life expectancy because of the reduction in heart-attack risk for people over 30. Unfortunately, alcohol is addictive and it is hard for people to have one drink everyday without wanting more and more over time. Excessive drinking causes most of the deaths and it only takes a little decrease in consumption to save most of the lives.
An increase in alcohol price can help people avoid excessive drinking because it has a bigger impact on the problem drinkers than on more responsible drinkers. Someone who only wants one beer per day is going to be impacted 1/10th as much as an alcoholic who drinks ten beers per day. Because the budgetary impact on problem drinkers is ten times bigger than on responsible drinkers, the problem drinkers cut back the most in response to a price rise and and that is where a bit less drinking is most likely to save lives (primarily their own).
A big objection to alcohol taxes is fairness. They are very regressive because low-income people (and people at the median) pay a much higher percentage of their income as alcohol taxes than rich people. But alcohol taxes arguably benefit non-rich people more because they give us a greater incentive to avoid excessive drinking. Rich drunks don’t care as much about a 50-cent increase in the price of a six pack and will keep drinking and dying despite the price increase.