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Can Higher Alcohol Prices Curb Drinking?

Budweiser Beer Cans

 (Reuters)

A new Canadian study suggests increasing the minimum price of beer, liquor and other alcoholic beverages may reduce how much people drink.

SUMMARY

For every 10-percent price hike, researchers found people drank 3.4 percent less alcohol, and their consumption of particular drinks dropped even more

Researchers used data from the Canadian province of British Columbia, where the government sets the minimum price for alcohol and keeps information on its sales.

For every 10-percent price hike, they found people drank 3.4 percent less alcohol, and their consumption of particular drinks dropped even more.

"This is an important finding about an effective but under-utilized policy," said Dr. Tim Naimi, who studies alcohol control policies but wasn't involved in the new work.

In an email to Reuters Health, Naimi, of Boston University's School of Medicine, said raising the minimum price is "something of a silver bullet" when it comes to reining in drinking.

And it could have important implications for public health, said study researcher Tim Stockwell, because cutting back on alcohol might also help curb car accidents and ailments such as fatty liver disease.

"All of these things are related to the excessive use of alcohol," Stockwell told Reuters Health. "Access to our favorite drug does come at a cost."

Stockwell, who heads the Centre for Addictions Research of BC in Victoria, and his colleagues looked at government data from 1989 to 2010. Even after accounting for general economic indicators, they found a strong link between prices and drinking patterns.

Specifically, for every 10-percent increase in the minimum price of an alcoholic drink, consumption of spirits and liqueurs fell by 6.8 percent, wine by 8.9 percent, alcoholic sodas and ciders by 13.9 percent and beer by 1.5 percent.

British Columbia has a mix of private and state-owned alcohol distributors, but all sales must first go through a government agency, Stockwell said.

The findings, published in the journal Addiction, don't prove that price hikes are entirely responsible for the changes in people's drinking habits. And the researchers caution that their results are limited by changes in demand and that they only used data on legally sold alcohol.

Still, Naimi told Reuters Health that raising the minimum price of an alcoholic drink can help limit a problem drinker's chance to shift to a less expensive drink, which he said is possible when a tax on certain type of alcohol is increased.

The U.S. does not currently set a minimum price for alcohol. Scotland announced plans to do so in 2010, while England is currently considering the option.

According to Alexander Wagenaar, a health policy expert at the University of Florida in Gainesville, there is a lot of research on the effects of alcohol taxes, and he considers minimum pricing to be part of that.

"There is no question that the level of alcohol prices has an effect on the health burden. So the minimum pricing is a piece of this large picture of how important alcohol tax policy is," said Wagenaar, who was not involved in the new study.

He added that alcohol taxes in the U.S. have not kept up with inflation and increasing income, which mutes any effect they might have.