Study looks at alcohol taxes

Researchers conclude higher taxes reduce deaths caused by abuse

Posted: Sunday, November 16, 2008

ANCHORAGE - One way to stop so many people from being killed by diseases linked to alcohol abuse? Higher taxes on alcohol.

That's the conclusion of a new study about two Alaska alcohol tax increases that is getting national attention - even as skeptics in the state question the results. They challenge one of the study's assumptions - that people drank less because of higher alcohol prices.

In fact, data published on the state of Alaska's Web site shows that consumption of alcohol here has been fairly flat since 1991.

The new study by researchers with the University of Florida relied on more than 100 earlier studies that found when the price of alcohol goes up, people generally drink less. They didn't investigate whether that happened in Alaska.

The researchers gathered information from death certificates to examine how many Alaskans died from alcohol-related diseases such as liver cirrhosis, pancreatitis and various cancers as well as alcohol poisoning over nearly three decades to assess the effect of alcohol tax hikes in 1983 and 2002. They didn't look at violent or accidental deaths.

They concluded that higher taxes had a big impact.

After Alaska's 1983 tax increase - just a dime per gallon of beer or wine, and $1.50 on a gallon of hard liquor - deaths dropped 29 percent, they said. After a much bigger 2002 increase, deaths dropped 11 percent, the study found.

"It's the ultimate outcome," said Alexander Wagenaar, the lead researcher and an epidemiology professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine.

"The bottom line is that the increase in the tax is saving lives and it's having a substantial effect," Wagenaar said.

The study, just released by the American Journal of Public Health, was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and will be published in the January issue. It's the first of its kind, Wagenaar said.

Alaska was picked because of two significant tax increases - something no other state had, Wagenaar said.

Officials with the state Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse were taking their first look at the study late Thursday and said that if deaths are dropping, it's probably not because of a higher tax alone.

"While the alcohol tax is an important part of the equation for reducing alcohol-related deaths, (the board) believes there are other contributing factors and that the alcohol tax is just part of a continuum of services, programs and policies that has influenced the reductions noted in the study," the board said in a written statement.

Efforts such as therapeutic courts and increased enforcement of drunken driving laws also have reduced how many people die, the board said. Addressing alcoholism is the No. 1 priority of the state Department of Health and Social Services.

Data on the state Web site showing that per-capita alcohol consumption in Alaska has been essentially static - going up a little some years and down a little others - is reliable, Kate Burkhart, the board's executive director, wrote in an e-mail. Officials hadn't figured out why deaths might drop if consumption remained the same.

Alaskans drink more than the national average, according to statistics based on Department of Revenue sales figures - nearly three gallons per capita in 1991, 2.5 gallons in 2005. But from 2002 to 2004, the years right after the biggest tax increase, consumption was basically flat or even went up a little.

"That's what the distributors tell me as well. In terms of alcohol quantity, the tax rate didn't change the ... consumption of Alaskans," said Dale Fox, president and chief executive of an alcohol industry group, the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association.

He read a CNN story about the new study and was scratching his head.

"The basis of their conclusion - that taxes were raised and consumption was down and therefore lives were saved - is erroneous on its face," Fox said.

A hard-core alcoholic - the type of person likely to die of a disease such as cirrhosis - isn't going to cut back because of a tax increase that promoters in 2002 said would cost just "a dime a drink," he said.

Alaska's alcohol taxes since the 2002 increase are the highest in the country, three to four times the national average, Fox said. They now stand at $1.07 for a gallon of beer; $2.50 for wine; and $12.80 for hard liquor.

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