Increasing the tax on alcohol could have a slew of public health benefits, according to a new study.
Boosting the price of booze could decrease the incidence of alcohol-related deaths and car crashes, reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and lower violence and crime, the researchers say.
"Thousands of lives could be saved and millions of health care costs, many millions of health care costs averted if the taxes were adjusted to stay up with inflation, for example, or raised a notch," said study researcher Alexander Wagenaar, professor of health outcomes and policy at the University of Florida College of Medicine.
There is a well-known link between the cost of alcohol and how much people drink, Wagenaar said. For instance, when the alcohol taxes in Finland were lowered by one-third in 2004, there was a 10 percent increase in alcohol consumption, according to a 2009 study in the journal Addiction. And other research by Wagenaar, which analyzed the results of 112 previous studies, found that on average, a 10 percent increase in the cost of alcohol leads to about a 5 percent decrease in the amount of drinking.
The new study suggests these changes in drinking habits impact other alcohol-related problems.
Higher price, lower crime
Wagenaar and his colleagues identified 50 papers published over the last 40 years that looked at how changes in alcohol prices affect health outcomes. These studies were mainly conducted in the United States, Canada and Scandinavia.
Their analysis showed that, on average, a doubling of the alcohol tax was associated with a 35 percent decrease in alcohol-related mortality (such as death from liver disease), an 11 percent decrease in deaths from traffic accidents, a 6 percent decrease in sexually transmitted diseases, a 2 percent decrease in violence and a 1.4 percent reduction in crime.
The only factor the study examined that was not influenced by alcohol prices was the rate of suicide.
Not all studies have found a link between alcohol prices and drinking behavior. For instance, a 2009 study in the journal European Addiction Research found that a 45 percent decrease in the alcohol taxes in Denmark did not significantly change alcohol consumption in the three years following the price change. However, that study's authors suggested this could be because alcohol consumption in the country has reached a stable point, and people were not tempted to consume more.
But the Danish study does suggest that the effect of an alcohol tax may differ depending on culture.
"I think it is important to keep the circumstances in different countries and cultures in mind. Especially the drinking culture. Drinking culture might not change very fast even if the alcohol policy changes," said Ulrike Grittner, author of the European Addiction Research study and a researcher at the Institute for Biometrics and Clinical Epidemiology in Germany.
The advantage of Wagenaar's work, a study of studies, is that it provides a much bigger picture than any one study can.
"The benefit of a meta-analysis is you accumulate the evidence over all the studies. So when the estimates bounce around and have a little bit of variability, you're not overweighing the idiosyncratic outlier," Wagenaar told MyHealthNewsDaily. However, the results may be more reflective of the effects in the United States because the majority of studies included in the work (39 out of 50) were conducted in the U.S., Grittner said.
A disadvantage of this type of study is that it presents an average effect, so it may blur together the effects of tax hikes on different cultures. Also, when examining many studies, it can be hard to compare the results of studies conducted in different ways, the researchers say.
The work was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an organization that aims to improve health and health care in the United States. The findings are published online today (Sept. 23) in the American Journal of Public Health.
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