Alcohol-related deaths are up in America, and the cost of alcohol might be partly to blame. While no single reason explains why more people are dying from alcohol use, the relative cheap cost of alcohol now, compared to recent history, is a significant factor.
Since alcohol is legal, its use in America is more widespread than other addictive substances. A little more than half of Americans age 12 and older report alcohol use, and around half of alcohol users report problem-drinking patterns.1 While there are some health benefits to light drinking, people who drink several drinks at one sitting or drink heavily on a regular basis lose any benefits and actually harm their health.2
What’s Behind Alcohol-Related Deaths?
Several factors lead to higher alcohol death rates. At a basic level, more deaths from alcohol point to more Americans drinking at unsafe levels. The number of Americans who report drinking varies from year to year, but it did increase from a 14-year-low of 50.1 percent in 2003 to a high of 52.7 percent in 2014. Annual statistics only provide a snapshot of what’s happening at any given time; by 2015 the percentage of drinkers dropped to 51.7. Of most concern is the number of Americans who report binge drinking or heavy drinking. Binge drinking is drinking 5 or more drinks at a sitting for men, or 4 or more drinks at a time for women. Heavy drinking is binge drinking on 5 or more occasions in a month. Around 25 percent of people report binge drinking and 6.5 percent of people report heavy drinking.1
Another factor behind alcohol-related deaths is drug use. People who use opioids, such as prescription pain relievers or heroin, or benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, are at higher risk of overdosing when they combine the drugs with alcohol. The prescribing rate for opioids and benzos rose significantly in the 2000s, making it more likely people would use the drugs along with alcohol.4
Using Cost to Make a Difference
Punitive measures, such as preventing all alcohol consumption, aren’t the most effective way to encourage people to drink less. Many experts believe controlling the cost of alcohol is a better option. A study comparing the relative cost of alcohol compared to a person’s disposable income shows alcohol is cheaper in the 2010s than at any time since the 1950s. For example, one drink of the cheapest brand of spirits cost 0.29 percent of mean per capita disposable income in 2011, compared to 1.02 percent in 1980, 2.24 percent in 1970, 3.61 percent in 1960 and 4.46 percent in 1950. In addition to higher incomes making it easier to afford alcohol, lower taxes also affect the price.5
Since many researchers see a link between lower alcohol prices and higher drinking rates, some want the federal government to increase alcohol taxes to discourage drinking. Doubling the federal alcohol tax in the United States could lead to 35 percent fewer alcohol-related deaths, 11 percent fewer traffic crash deaths, a six percent dip in sexually transmitted diseases and even small reductions in violence and crime.6
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Written By David Heitz
1 Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. “Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” HHS Publication No. SMA 16-4984, NSDUH Series H-51. 2016. Accessed 26 June 2017.
2 “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Feb. 2017. Accessed 26 June 2017.
3 Kochanek, Kenneth D., et.al. “Deaths: Final Data for 2014.” National Vital Statistics Report. U.S. Health & Human Services Dept. Vol. 65, No. 4, 30 June 2016. Accessed 26 June 2017.
4 Lopez, German. “Way more Americans are drinking themselves to death. Here’s why.” Vox. 28 Dec. 2015. Accessed 26 June 2017.
5 Kerr, W. C., et. al. “U.S. Alcohol Affordability and Real Tax Rates, 1950–2011.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Vol. 44, No. 5, pp. 459–464, 2013. Accessed 26 June 2017.
6 “Raising Alcohol Taxes Reduces Harm.” Alcohol Justice. Jan. 2014. Accessed 26 June 2017.