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When alcohol taxes go up, deaths go down

November 13, 2008 |  2:22 pm

Beer1Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed a 5-cent excise tax increase per alcoholic drink as a way to ease the state's huge budget shortfall. According to a study published today, alcohol tax increases also save lives.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that raising the alcohol tax in Alaska led to a significant decline in the number of people who died from alcohol-related diseases. In 1983, Alaska increased its beer tax, followed by another big tax hike in 2002. Researchers from the University of Florida tracked deaths from alcohol-related diseases and found that the 1983 tax was followed by a 29% reduction in deaths (23 per year) and the 2002 tax boost was followed by an 11% reduction in deaths (an additional 21 per year). The taxes had a two to four times larger effect on alcohol-related deaths than some other common alcohol prevention programs, such as school education programs or media campaigns.

Alaska is well-known for its high rate of alcoholism, noted the study's lead author, Alexander C. Wagenaar.

"Alaska was cognizant of its alcohol problems and decided to do something meaningful. We are now benefiting from the results of their unique experiment which shows what other states could gain if they were to implement a similar tax increase."

About 85,000 deaths per year nationwide are linked to drinking, including injuries, homicides, suicides and a range of diseases. Many studies have found that alcohol tax increases reduce vehicular deaths. But other research on the effect of tax increases has been mixed. Some studies suggest alcohol prices were linked to lower unintentional injury and homicide rates, but others dispute that connection.

It's also not clear from previous research whether alcohol prices or taxes are related to the rates of alcohol dependence. But the new study suggests that tax hikes affect drinking patterns over long periods of time.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Carmel Zucker / Los Angeles Times