Binge Drinking Is Bad. But Here's a Way to Use It for Good

January 22nd 2015

Julian Ramis

These people want to make you pay more for alcohol. Here’s why you might want to let them.

Excessive drinking is many things: prevalent, destructive, even deadly, exciting to some, sickening to most, and, last but not least, it’s expensive! It cost the United States approximately $223.5 billion in 2006, according to the CDC. That’s $95.9 billion more than the federal government spent on education in the same year, and that’s not even including the money actually spent on drinks (that money we like. It’s GDP!) The $223.5 billion figure is made of expenses related to health care, law enforcement, motor vehicle crashes, and diminished productivity in the workplace. Ever worked with someone who likes to brag about their hangovers? I have and it is terrible.

The fiscal repercussions are one thing, but the human cost is another entirely. Excessive drinking kills roughly 88,000 people a year and affects countless more as it eats away at the social fabric that is just barely holding this culture together. If you’re feeling guilty or, what is more likely, if you’re wondering whether all this embittered fact gathering is due to my not having drank in over a week well, then, you might be right. But the only reason I’m painting this picture is to help you understand the rationale driving an innovative new approach to reaping some social benefit from this fun-expensive-massively-destructive habit of ours.
A collaborative research project undertaken by Johns Hopkins, the University of Illinois, the University of Florida and the Boston Medical Center has found that increasing alcohol taxes at the state level would create jobs while simultaneously reducing consumption. Furthermore, the majority of the added revenue collected from the tax will come from excessive drinkers, defined as people who consume five or more drinks in a single sitting for the purposes of the study. (You can read the report here.)

In my home state of Illinois, this means that the 26.1 percent of the population defined as excessive drinkers would pay 82.3 percent of the tax increase, leaving a measly 17.7 percent to be paid by the 34.6 percent of the population who drink in a more reasonable manner. As for the job benefits, a 10¢ increase in excise taxes would mean 4,894 new government jobs if the revenue were put into the state's general fund or 1,694 new jobs if the revenue were funneled into healthcare. In Washington DC, a 10¢ increase could translate into more than 1,500 new jobs.

So in spite of the historical unpopularity of excise taxes (see the Boston Tea Party or the Whiskey Rebellion), this quiet but effective policy could prove a valuable engine for job creation.

To see how an alcohol tax increase would play out in your state, check out this interactive calculator provided by the good folks at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.