Alcohol and Violence

By Markowitz, Sara | NBER Reporter, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Alcohol and Violence


Markowitz, Sara, NBER Reporter


Sara Markowitz (*)

Since the early 1980s, a number of economists have examined the impact of the price of alcoholic beverages on alcohol consumption. Recently their research has turned to the role of alcohol prices on negative outcomes, including motor vehicle crashes, workplace accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, alcohol-related deaths, and crime. (1) In general, this research, which has used a wide variety of data, has concluded that increases in the prices of alcoholic beverages do lead to reductions in drinking, and thus in the adverse consequences of alcohol use and abuse. Along these lines, my research explores the links among alcohol consumption, alcohol control policies, and violence.

Violence is of particular interest because of the mental and physical harm it inflicts on others. The victims, often well known to the perpetrator, include spouses, children, and friends. Alcohol is frequently a factor in such violence. When the victim is the offender's spouse, alcohol is a factor as much as 75 percent of the time. (2) Alcohol consumption is cited also as a common correlate of violence committed by teenagers. Although the two behaviors often are observed together, much is still unknown about their association. Understanding the nature of their relationship is important from a policy perspective: if alcohol consumption does indeed lead to violent behaviors, then it may be possible to reduce violence through changes in policies that affect the demand for alcohol.

My interest in the alcohol-violence connection has led me in two main directions in my work: first, focusing on the relationship between alcohol and criminal violence and second considering the impact of alcohol consumption on the family, where violence is only one of the ways in which children and spouses are affected.

Alcohol and Criminal Violence

Although alcohol consumption is widely believed to be a precipitator of violent behaviors, it is not clear whether the relationship is causal. If alcohol consumption results in a pharmacological reaction that makes people more likely to engage in violent behaviors, that implies causality. However, both behaviors may be outcomes of a third factor, such as an individual's personality. Even without knowing the true causal nature of the alcohol-violence connection, one can examine the role of alcohol price in reducing violence: estimating a reduced-form equation yields a model of violence as a direct function of the full price of alcohol. Prices are not expected to have any impact on violence except through consumption. Thus, any price effects provide evidence that alcohol consumption and violence are causally linked.

In two recent studies, I use reduced-form models to examine the impact of alcohol control policies on the incidence of assault, rape, and robbery. This approach accounts for the possibility that consumption by both perpetrators and victims may influence the occurrence of crimes. Alcohol consumption may intensify a perpetrator's tendency to violence, while a victim's consumption may result in behaviors that put him or her at greater risk.

In the first of these studies, I focus on crimes in the United States and consider the impact of alcohol policies, as well as illegal-drug policies. (3) Illegal drugs may have the same impact as alcohol on the propensity for violence. Previous studies have had to rely on data collected from police reports, which dramatically underreport crimes, but this research is the first to look at the alcohol-violence link using individual-level data. The data on crime come from special geographically coded versions of the 1992, 1993, and 1994 National Grime Victimization Surveys. Criminal violence is measured in terms of physical assault, rape and sexual assault, and robbery, as well as alcohol- or drug-involved assault, rape and sexual assault, and robbery. Given that not all violence is alcohol- or drug related, these latter measures are particularly useful. …

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