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Booze Taxes Lower Alcohol-Linked Deaths

Alaska's alcohol tax increases tied to a drop in cirrhosis, cancer, study found

THURSDAY, Nov. 13 (HealthDay News) -- Raising state taxes on alcohol may trigger an immediate drop in the number of people who die from alcohol-related disease, new research reveals.

The finding is based on the particular experience of Alaska, following that state's two legislative moves to raise taxes on beer, wine and liquor in 1983 and 2002. In the first instance, the research team observed a 29 percent decline in deaths from alcohol-related disease; in the second, the apparent drop was 11 percent.

"The real bottom line is that the increase in the alcohol tax saved lives," said study lead author Alexander C. Wagenaar, a professor of epidemiology with the College of Medicine at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Wagenaar and his team will publish their conclusions in the online January edition of the American Journal of Public Health. The study was funded by the Substance Abuse Policy Research Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

To gauge the impact of alcohol taxes on alcohol-related disease fatalities, the authors analyzed U.S. National Center for Health Statistics data from 1976 through 2004. They tallied the number of men and women who died from a range of alcohol-related conditions, both in Alaska and across the United States, before and after Alaska's two tax bumps.

Such diseases include cirrhosis, cancer of the mouth, cancers of the esophagus, breast cancer, and a number of other pancreatic and cardiac illnesses. Alongside alcohol-related injuries and accidents, such illnesses make up the estimated 85,000 alcohol-fueled deaths occurring in the United States annually.

The researchers note that Alaska is one of the first states to impose a serious increase in alcohol tax, raising its tax on beer, for example, from 46 cents to 63 cents per gallon in 1983, and then again to $1.20 per gallon in 2002. While most states have some sort of alcohol tax in place, the authors point out that tax rates are typically not adjusted for inflation, the result being that the "real" dollar value of alcohol taxes has actually fallen over the last half century.

In Alaska, however, Wagenaar and his colleagues found evidence that even after accounting for general improvements in health care, the imposition of a substantial alcohol tax was tied to an almost instantaneous public health reward.

Following the 1983 tax bump, 23 more deaths were averted per year -- a 29 percent drop in mortality that continued to hold up over time. Following the 2002 bump, another 21 deaths were averted annually, another 11 percent plunge.

What's more, Alaska's alcohol taxes appeared to be more powerful than other prevention efforts designed to reduce alcohol-related death rates. Specifically, the two taxes were deemed to be two to four times as effective in lowering death rates as anti-drinking media campaigns or school programs aimed at getting teens to curb their drinking.

"Basically, this was a simple adjustment of an existing policy that didn't involve increasing new health programs or interventions or spending large amounts of money," Wagenaar noted. "And it should be pointed out that in public health, if we do something that reduces the death rate by just 3 or 5 percent, that's considered to be a major success. And these tax increases reduced the risk of death from alcohol-related disease far more substantially than that."

"So, the implication for the other states and the country as a whole is quite amazing," Wagenaar added. "Just think of the healthcare cost that would be saved if we reduced the death rates across the whole country. And this is absolutely something that's not impossible to do."

Dr. Marc Galanter, director of the division of alcoholism and drug abuse in the psychiatry department at New York University's School of Medicine in New York City, expressed little surprise with the study findings.

"Many studies have shown, in different settings, that increasing the price of either alcohol or tobacco leads to a decline in sales," he noted. "So this study reaffirms this effect and its impact, in terms of alcohol. And it suggests that any change in public health messages concerning alcohol consumption should also involve a change in taxes, and therefore prices, as an effective means for ensuring improved health for the community."

More information

For more on the impact of alcohol taxes on drinking behaviors, head to the Alcohol Policies Project.

SOURCES: Alexander C. Wagenaar, Ph.D., professor, epidemiology, College of Medicine, University of Florida, Gainesvill; Marc Galanter, M.D., director, division of alcoholism and drug abuse, department of psychiatry, New York University School of Medicine, New York City; January 2009 online edition, American Journal of Public Health

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