Why taxation is better than regulation, but not a complete substitute for regulation, as a means of controlling problem drinking

Iain Murry (*)objects to alcohol taxation as a means of controlling drinking problems on the grounds that most drinkers don’t cause problems. He prefers an approach focused on problem drinkers.

There’s no reason to choose. Both approaches are useful; neither, taken alone, is a complete solution.

Alcohol taxation reduces drinking by both problem and non-problem drinkers. By reducing the total amount of drinking, taxation also reduces the proportion of the population that develops alcohol abuse or dependency. The modest financial burden that alcohol taxation places on non-problem drinkers is simply one of those burdens that reasonable people should be willing to bear as the price of living together.

Because teenagers tend to have less money than adults, taxation is an especially potent means of reducing their alcohol consumption. By eliminating the age restriction while sharply increasing taxes, we could reduce the volume of teenage drinking and the volume of lawbreaking.

(As many as half of all college students are said to have fake ID for the purpose of being able to drink. Can we really afford, in the post-9-11 world, to make the acquisition and use of false identification documents a routine incident of growing up?)

But since the level of taxation appropriate to the average drink, while higher than would be right for the median drink, is much too low for a drink taken by someone with a history of drunken assault, we also need restrictions that directly target drinking by problem drinkers.

I propose replacing the age restriction for the legal purchase of alcohol with a restriction based on prior misconduct as demonstrated by a criminal conviction for drunken assault, drunken driving, or repeated incidents of drunken disorderly conduct. The enforcement mechanism would be, as now, the requirement that servers and sellers of alcohol verify that the people they’re selling to are eligible to buy. That would require having the motor vehicle registries create driver’s licenses with different markings for those ineligible to drink. (Right now, in California, those under 21 have driver’s license photos in profile rather than full-face, but some more subtle marking would do just as well.)

Yes, of course any such restriction would be evaded to some extent. But while evasion would reduce the efficacy of the restriction, it would not eliminate it. We should take our half a loaf and be grateful for it.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com