Reducing drunken violence

I agree with Eugene Volokh that for some problems there is no solution that will do more good than harm. While I think he understates the limited but real prospects for reducing violence through controlling access to weapons by dangerous people, I also think that others overstate those prospects.

But it seems to me that Eugene is plainly wrong when it comes to alcohol, which he uses as a comparison case in arguing against gun controls. We could easily make substantial reductions in alcohol-related violence – and accidents, and health damage to drinkers – with a few straightforward and administratively feasible policy changes without major unwanted side-effects.

First, we could raise taxes. Doubling the federal alcohol tax from the current ten cents per drink to twenty cents would reduce homicide and automobile fatalities about about 7% each, saving about 3000 lives per year. It would cost a two-drinks-per-day drinker (at about the 80th percentile of all drinkers about $6 per month. (Fully internalizing the external costs of drinking would involve taxes nearer a dollar a drink.)

Second, we could make it harder for people who break the law when they get drunk to continue drinking, either by subjecting them to alcohol testing in programs such as South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety (twice-daily alcohol testing on probation) or by creating a “do-not-serve” list of convicted drunken drivers and drunken assailants and requiring alcohol sellers to check customers against that list (or putting a “do-not-serve” marking on the convicted person’s driver’s license).

Neither of these approaches would eliminate the drinking problem, or even the narrower drunken-violence problem, but the combination would substantially reduce them. And yet so far it has proven virtually impossible even to get such obviously rational policies on the political agenda; “drug warriors” and “drug policy reformers” alike remain stubbornly indifferent to means of reducing the damage done by the one intoxicant we’re not currently making war on.

Comments

  1. Keith Humphreys says

    Mark wrote: And yet so far it has proven virtually impossible even to get such obviously rational policies on the political agenda

    Alcohol taxes yes absolutely. 24/7 Sobriety, no. The White House has boomed it no end as a way to reduce the prison population, both in this country and in international fora. Many states are taking it up around the US. Scotland, England and Wales all started it in 2012; for the latter two a new law was required that passed with strong support from all three parties. There is some political resistance to it from (a) People who think every single heavy drinker can only stop drinking with the aid of treatment and (b) People who see taking away the right to drink as a human rights violation, but those people are losing out to the hordes of people who know someone who was killed or maimed by a drunk driver.

  2. Gary K says

    Mark, I think your first sentence means just the opposite of what you intend. Maybe you want to interchange “harm” and “good”?

  3. Anderson says

    Volokh is purely a reactionary. I’ve given up commenting over there out of sheer disgust with his determination to support the status quo that gave us Newtown.

    • John Herbison says

      IMO, Professor Volokh is among the reasonable gun aficionados. He definitely has his point of view, but his defense of firearms is better reasoned (and light years more articulate) than that of the “cold dead fingers” crowd.

      That having been said, the professor has recently been grasping at straws regarding guns.

      Has anyone heard that the NRA is going to sponsor a remake of Charlton Heston’s most famous movie? It will be called The Nine Commandments.

  4. Byomtov says

    Doubling the federal alcohol tax from the current ten cents per drink to twenty cents would reduce homicide and automobile fatalities about about 7% each, saving about 3000 lives per year. It would cost a two-drinks-per-day drinker (at about the 80th percentile of all drinkers about $6 per month.

    Would it really? Consumers of alcohol have a huge range of choices and brands, so substitution of lower cost products would be widespread. This is especially so since the differences between products close in price are often negligible. Even if we assume that the full incidence is on consumers, which is probably reasonable, I don’t see a lot of reduction in consumption except for those already drinking the cheapest stuff around. Is that the bulk of problem alcohol consumption?

    • Keith Humphreys says

      Byomtov asked “Is that the bulk of problem alcohol consumption?”

      Answer: Yes. The alcohol research group’s national surveys show that the heaviest drinkers pay about 80% less per unit of alcohol than light drinkers (Which makes sense, if I drank that much I would shop around also). They therefore don’t have many or any lower cost alternatives available.

      These same data have inspired a group of us in the UK to push for a minimum price on alcohol. I have posted about that here a number of times.

    • Mark Kleiman says

      See the link to Philip Cook, or his book Paying the Tab. Those are the results of statistical analysis of state-to-state variations in taxation, and changes in tax rates.

      • Byomtov says

        Unfortunately this seems to be gated. It looks like there might be a way to get free access, but it’s unclear, and complicated.

    • rachelrachel says

      In 2007, the Community Preventative Services Task Force, a body appointed by the CDC, completed a review of the literature to look at “the effectiveness of tax policy interventions for reducing excessive alcohol consumption and related harms.”

      http://www.thecommunityguide.org/alcohol/effectivenesstaxpolicyinterventionsreducingexcessivealcoholconsumptionrelatedharms.pdf

      From the abstract:

      “Seventy-two papers or technical reports, which were published prior to July 2005, met specifıed quality criteria, and included evaluation outcomes relevant to public health (e.g., binge drinking, alcohol-related crash fatalities), were included in the fınal review. Nearly all studies, including those with different study designs, found that there was an inverse relationship between the tax or price of alcohol and indices of excessive drinking or alcohol-related health outcomes. . . . These results constitute strong evidence that raising alcohol excise taxes is an effective strategy for reducing excessive alcohol consumption and related harms. The impact of a potential tax increase is expected to be proportional to its magnitude and to be modifıed by such factors as disposable income and the demand elasticity for alcohol among various population groups.”

      The Task Force has also evaluated the effectiveness of other policies:

      http://www.thecommunityguide.org/alcohol/index.html

  5. strayan says

    “drug policy reformers… remain stubbornly indifferent to means of reducing the damage done by the one intoxicant we’re not currently making war on”

    I don’t know where you get that idea. Reforms groups like Transform UK and the NZ Drug Foundation are advocates of stringent price controls and advertising restrictions. I’m a tea teetotaler yet I think heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine should be legal for recreational use and I will continue to campaign as such. I also happend to think alcohol should be more heavily taxed, advertising should be banned and that it should be sold with graphic health warnings in standardised packaging – like cigarettes in Australia e.g.

    http://goo.gl/XJfUL
    http://goo.gl/FPmlN

    • Mark Kleiman says

      I get that idea by watching drug policy reformers less than 8,000 miles from Los Angeles. Yes, Transform does good work.

  6. JMG says

    Seems like this is just another typically overlooked cost of continuing the War on (poor and dark skinned people who prefer certain) Drugs then: the whole enterprise has such a noxious stench and moral stain that most people can’t even bring themselves to think about upping regulation in another area.

    Perhaps when we ramp down the violence and imposition of misery for misery’s sake inherent in that War, we’ll see an uptick in people’s faith that trying logic and reason won’t simply get them smeared as “weak on X.”

    • Keith Humphreys says

      As anyone who has worked on alcohol policy knows, it’s a far better demonstration of how a legal industry and its lobbyists can ensure low taxes and weak regulation on its products.

      • SamChevre says

        In my observation/experience, alcohol policy is tremendously more restrictive–both forbidding more conduct and punishing forbidden conduct more harshly–than it was 20 years ago.

        Agreed, the restrictions are focused on underage drinking and drinking and driving (defined up), rather than on chronic heavy drinking–but I don’t see any evidence that tightening restrictions on alcohol is impossible.

        • Keith Humphreys says

          In my observation/experience

          We are all cpatives of our own experience of course, but we can’t use it to draw inferences about national trends.
          Nationally, alcohol taxation has been falling for years, some states still have amounts set in the 1930s that have never been adjusted for inflation. The raising of the drinking age was significant public health victory, but other than that, it’s pretty hard to sustain the case that regulation has grown in the past 30 years.

          • SamChevre says

            Right; I’m not arguing on taxation at all. It’s the following set of restrictions:

            1) A higher drinking age
            2) Much stricter enforcement (anecdotally) of the drinking age; it’s my impression (I don’t have data here) that drinking at 17.5 when the drinking age was 18 was punished nearly as severely as drinking underage is now, or that providing alcohol to a 17-year-old was a significant crime.
            3) A lower threshold for presumed intoxication while driving (.10 to .08 BAC)
            4) Higher penalties for driving while intoxicated (again, anecdotal) and a resulting increased focus by the police on enforcing DUI laws.
            5) Really anecdotal-but drinking at lunch used to be common for white-collar workers; now it’s extremely frowned on, if not forbidden. (Again, it’s hard to sort out data vs anecdote–but my employer used to provide alcohol to senior managers as part of their office supplies; my grandfather was considered odd because he never drank at lunch).

          • Keith Humphreys says

            Good point on BAC.

            On enforcement, I believe that over a quarter of beer is still consumed by teenagers, so I am not sure you are right about that.

            I agree on the lunchtime white collar thing (huge contrast with the UK and Spain for example) but that’s not regulation, that’s culture.

  7. Hank Roberts says

    > alcohol … a few straightforward and administratively feasible
    > policy changes without major unwanted side-effects.

    It’d be easy to eliminate Korsakoff’s Psychosis in longterm alcoholics.
    Fortify the cheapest alcohol with thiamine (vitamin B12).

    People who can’t stop drinking get most of their calories from alcohol, become B12 deficient, get brain damage, get violent.

    This was proposed as long ago as the 1920s or earlier.
    It’s well known. It would be a simple straightforward health care fix.

    Moralists won’t let it happen.
    They think brain damage somehow is deserved for moral failure to beat addiction.

    You could look it up.
    http://www.google.com/search?q=B12+thiamine+korsakoff

    • Anonymous says

      Moralists won’t let it happen. They think brain damage somehow is deserved for moral failure to beat addiction.

      It would cost the alcohol industry money, so they have stopped it cold. “Moralists” whoever that is, have nothing to do with it.

Trackbacks