The upside of raising taxes on alcohol -- fewer deaths, researchers say


People love to complain about “sin taxes” on unhealthy or socially undesirable foods and beverages (for instance, this Booster Shots item on a proposal to tax fattening foods to pay for obesity-related healthcare costs has prompted 831 comments so far). We know many of you think the government has better things to do than police what you put into your mouth. But have you ever stopped to consider how these taxes can help us?

Take the case of excise taxes on alcohol. Raising their price might make it financially difficult for you to host a kegger every weekend, but it also might save your life, says a recent study published online by the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Going out for chocolate martinis may be fun, but “excessive alcohol consumption is the third leading preventable cause of death” in the United States, according to the study. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says the tab for the ill effects of excessive drinking topped $185 billion in 2006.

In Florida, excise taxes for alcohol haven’t been changed since 1983. Back then, a charge of 48 cents per gallon of beer was meaningful; now it’s the spare change you could find at the bottom of your purse. By the same token, the $2.25 excise tax per gallon of wine and $6.50 per gallon of distilled spirits don’t pack the same financial punch that they did 27 years ago.

Adjusting those taxes to account for the inflation that has taken place since Ronald Reagan’s first term in the White House would not only make alcohol more expensive; it would also prevent between 600 and 800 deaths per year, according to the July 23 study by researchers from the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville.

That calculation is based on data compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The database includes information on every reported death in the country, including its cause. The researchers were able to find the number of alcohol-related deaths in Florida for each month between 1969 and 2005. (These were defined as deaths from diseases in which alcohol was at least 35% to blame, including cirrhosis, alcoholic liver disease, and acute alcohol poisoning.) Then they compared those figures to the financial burden imposed by the alcohol excise taxes, which changed each month due to legislation or the effects of inflation.

In a nutshell, they found that when the tax got more expensive (due to laws passed in 1977 and 1983), the number of deaths fell. When the tax got cheaper (due to inflation), the number of deaths rose. Overall, they calculated that each $1-per-gallon increase in the alcohol tax translated into 69 fewer deaths per month.

As a result, lead author Mildred Maldonado-Molina says Floridians would benefit by bringing the state’s alcohol tax into the 21st century. Factoring in the impact of inflation would boost the beer tax to $1.05 per gallon in today’s dollars (or 59 cents per six-pack), the wine tax to $4.93 per gallon (about $1 per bottle), and the distilled spirits tax all the way up to $14.24 per gallon.

The researchers focused on how taxes could avert deaths due to alcohol-related diseases because that question has not been addressed in many studies, Maldonado-Molina said. But higher taxes would actually save even more lives because any impediment to drinking would also reduce the number of drunk-driving accidents and violent crimes fueled by alcohol, the researchers concluded.

“The total number of deaths averted by increased alcohol taxes is much higher than the numbers reported here,” they wrote.

-- Jessie Schiewe/Los Angeles Times