As alarms over the opioid crisis sound ever louder, a larger and more expensive substance problem in the U.S. is quietly growing much worse. One in eight Americans abuses alcohol, a new study finds, a 50 percent increase since the start of the century.
Alcohol abuse is as old as civilization itself, of course, but quantifying its costs is a more recent endeavor. Alcohol is responsible for one in 10 deaths among working-age Americans — from accidents as well as illnesses. There are almost 90,000 alcohol-related deaths in America every year. Excessive drinking, mainly binge drinking, costs some $250 billion a year in lost productivity, health care and other expenses. The toll in personal suffering and ruined lives is incalculable.
Yet there has been a strange reluctance to fight back with the weapons known to work: restrictions on alcohol sales and advertising and, even more effective, higher taxes on alcohol. The federal tax on spirits (about 21 cents per ounce of alcohol; taxes on beer and wine are less than half that) has not changed since 1991, and over the past few decades the inflation-adjusted cost of drinking has fallen considerably. Many states have likewise neglected to index their alcohol taxes to inflation.
That’s too bad, because making drinking more expensive is the single strongest way to reduce harm from alcohol. Yes, higher prices burden the poor more than the well-off, but they can significantly reduce excessive drinking and its harmful effects: crime, violence, car crashes, suicides and sexually transmitted diseases.
If that’s not enough reason for Congress and state legislatures to raise alcohol taxes, consider that the government’s share of alcohol’s economic cost is about $100 billion a year, while state and federal alcohol taxes bring in about $15 billion. The difference amounts to quite a subsidy for excessive drinkers paid by many taxpayers who drink moderately or not at all.
There are other ways besides simply raising taxes — setting a minimum price for every unit of alcohol a drink contains, for example. Unlike taxes, which can be selectively absorbed by wholesalers or retailers, minimum prices must be borne by the drinkers. Five years ago, Scotland passed a law meant to set a 50-pence (65-cent) minimum price for every unit a drink contains, though the Scotch Whisky Association has so far kept it tied up in court.
Lawmakers need to be clear about the problem, however, and ways to control it. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has declared drug overdose deaths, which reached nearly 60,000 in 2016, to be America’s “top lethal issue.” He’s not the only one who needs to be reminded that alcohol abuse is significantly more deadly, and just as deserving of attention.
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