Getting a Bargain on a Buzz? Calculating the Real Price of Alcohol

If you're someone who enjoys the "affordable luxury" ofbeer after work, or sometimes even a few, reasonably-increased taxes aren't going to kill you. What can kill you though, is excessive alcohol use.
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Bottles of spirits and liquor at the bar
Bottles of spirits and liquor at the bar

It's long been said that two things are unavoidable: death and taxes. But what if I told you that one could be a lot more avoidable simply by adopting a smarter, more equitable approach to the other? It's true. It's really, really true.

It's April, which means we've got taxes on the brain, and most of us are never as acutely aware of our own finances as we are this time of year. As we itemize, categorize, document and double check, it's all about dollars and cents, and you can't even watch an episode of your favorite show without an exuberant accountant yelling at you to get your billions back, America! But here's the thing: April is also alcohol awareness month, and if we as a nation really want to get some of our billions back, and start saving lives in the process, looking at the true cost of drinking is a great place to start.

On an individual level, there's the obvious, tangible cost of imbibing -- how much someone actually spends on alcohol -- that many Americans are reminded of when they pore over their receipts and reflect on their budgets come tax time. And on that front, you're getting quite a deal, whether you know it or not. Regardless if you're someone with a moderate drinking habit or you're a problem drinker, the amount you're spending on booze as a percentage of your disposable income is literally a tiny fraction of what it would have been in previous decades, and "alcoholic beverages sold for off-premises consumption are more affordable today than at any time in the past 60 years," according to a 2013 study. For a variety of reasons, including the appallingly low taxes that alcohol has long enjoyed, Americans are getting a bargain on getting a buzz. Individually, that is. As a society, we're getting robbed. We're also getting maimed, tortured and killed during the commission of that robbery.

According to a study released by the CDC a few years ago, the per capita economic impact of excessive alcohol consumption in the U.S. is approximately $746 per person, most of which is attributable to binge drinking. On a national level, that equated to roughly $225 billion and ranged from $420 million in North Dakota to $32 billion in California. On their own those are staggering and offensive numbers, but they get even worse when you consider that they are only based on things like losses in workplace productivity, health care expenses, and other costs due to a combination of criminal justice expenses, motor vehicle crash costs, and property damage. The study didn't account for things like pain and suffering -- either of the excessive drinker themselves or of those affected by their drinking.

As a clinician who works around the firebombed rubble that alcohol can reduce a human life to -- along with the lives in the village it took to raise that human -- I don't think a $225 billion dollar price tag even begins to approximate the real cost of our most celebrated legal drug. As a lawyer seeking to calculate damages, I'd say get comfortable, because we're just getting warmed up when we hit the quarter-trillion mark.

While it's truly impossible and somewhat repugnant to calculate the real value of a human life in dollars, the need for attempts to do so is an inescapable part of living in a nation of laws and currency. As a result, many models have emerged over the years to help solve the equation x dollars = one human life. Different models will yield different results, but the EPA's formula for valuing a life is popular and widely-cited, pegging the number at roughly $7.5 million dollars. We know that excessive alcohol use accounts for 88,000 U.S. deaths per year, which means we're already talking about $660 billion based solely on the most extreme damage the drug inflicts -- death. Attempting to accurately capture and quantify all of it's lesser, included harms -- physical, emotional and psychological trauma, broken homes, diminished quality of lives, squashed dreams, plundered hopes and financial apocalypses -- feels like a fool's errand, and one that neither my calculator nor my imagination is suited to undertake. Suffice it to say, the grand total would involve an unfathomable amount of heartbreak and even more zeroes.

Do we really like drinking that much that we're willing to suffer such catastrophic losses in order to do it? Maybe so, but not everyone. Thirty percent of Americans don't drink at all, and another thirty percent drink an average of less than one drink per week. So, just to connect the dots, that's approximately 60 percent of Americans who should arguably shoulder none of the quarter-trillion economic burden that excessive drinking hoists upon all of us, but who are forced to nonetheless. In whose skewed world view does that make sense? And why are so few people talking about it as a political issue? Are we that afraid of being cast as a party-pooping buzzkill? If so, perhaps our pocketbooks will motivate us to overcome that fear. If not, perhaps our respect for human life will.

Researchers at the University of Florida Gainesville just published an important study which confirms what should be common sense: Increases on alcohol taxes can have a substantial impact on the number of alcohol-related auto fatalities. Illinois increased its excise taxes on alcohol in 2009, and the study found that traffic deaths related to alcohol fell by a heartening 26 percent. By adopting similar increases on a nationwide scale, the authors conclude, we could prevent thousands of deaths from car crashes each year. What's most fascinating about the study though, is that it showed that alcohol taxes have an impact on the entire spectrum of drinking drivers, including the heavy drinkers whom we have long been told are less responsive to tax increases. If that's what raising taxes on alcohol can do to the auto-fatality rate, imagine the impact it could have on all the other ways booze kills us. As the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States, those are a lot of ways.

The deep-pocketed and determined alcohol lobby -- which has some of the most well known and powerful names in politics on its payroll -- will have you believe that increased alcohol taxes would have a negative effect on the economy, and really only hurt the moderate drinker. They'll trot out their executives to write letters to the editor, pleading the case to spare the wallets of those who "look forward to the affordable luxury of a beer at the end of a workday." Their self-interested arguments are laughable in light of the enormous, clearly established damage that alcohol indiscriminately inflicts upon the economy for all of us, whether we're an abstainer, moderate drinker or problem drinker.

Furthermore, if you're someone who enjoys the "affordable luxury" of a beer after work, or sometimes even a few, reasonably-increased taxes aren't going to kill you. What can kill you though, is excessive alcohol use. As a matter of public policy, there's no legitimate reason why we shouldn't deter that through higher taxes. Besides, binge drinking -- the most prevalent form of excessive alcohol use -- is more common among those with household incomes of $75,000 or more than among those with lower incomes. If we can't ask those people to pay a little more, and perhaps discourage their self-injurious behavior while we're at it, maybe the only thing that's truly unavoidable is death.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

*The opinions expressed are solely those of Patrick R. Krill

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