Changing the Price of Alcohol in the United States: Perspectives from the Alcohol Industry, Public Health, and Research

Article excerpt

Based on a study examining the development, modification, and blockage of U.S. federal alcohol policy during the 1980s and 1990s, this paper focuses on alcohol prices and taxes. Data consist of 64 in-depth interviews of experts on U.S. federal alcohol policy, supplemented by findings from archival government reports, trade journals, and the research literature. Prior research has shown an association between increases in price and decreases in per capita consumption and certain aggregated problem rates. Using analysis of the interview material, we illustrate and interpret the perspectives of those who agree and of those who disagree with tax increases on alcoholic beverages. We offer interpretations of the relatively low attention given to this effective intervention by policy makers and offer some grounds for optimism that federal tax increases on alcoholic beverages, in conjunction with other, less proven control measures, might yet be acceptable to the general public and beneficial to public health.

KEY WORDS: Alcohol, price, tax, United States, federal government, policy.

Among alcohol policy interventions aimed at populations rather than individuals, taxation is one of the most controversial. Some U.S. citizens and politicians seem to see taxation as inherently undesirable and even distasteful. They are leery of arguments suggesting that taxes on alcohol can legitimately be used in order to reduce public health risks associated with drinking. Perspectives also differ on the role of government in managing health issues, on legitimate targets of intervention, on the relevance of environmentallevel prevention strategies, and on the credibility or correct interpretation of available research. It has been shown that not all policies are equally effective in achieving beneficial impact on problem rates (Edwards et al., 1994; Babor et al., 2003; Giesbrecht & Greenfield, 2003). Nevertheless, considerable alcohol research has shown that policies that control price and/or increase taxation are more powerful than restrictions on advertising and a number of other policies in yielding benefits for public health (Edwards et al., 1994; Österberg, 1995; Babor et al., 2003, pp. 101-115).

Given this background, this paper explores the following themes:

* Who are the key players at the federal level, and how do they view pricing and taxation as alcohol policy measures?

* How did the respondents in our study perceive the importance of the taxation issue?

* Does the opinion of respondents in our study parallel public opinion?

* What does research have to say about pricing and taxation?

* Is there any convergence between public opinion, research findings, and policy enactment on the issue of taxation and pricing?

Some caveats should be noted. Our focus is on the U.S. federal scene over a recent period of the 1980s and 1990s. The interpretations presented do not necessarily apply to state and local levels or to preceding and subsequent decades. Despite extensive searches of documentary and archival sources and our in-depth interviews with over 60 key informants, we acknowledge that more research needs to be done, including research that would utilize more fully the expertise of different categories of key players or potential key players, such as health economists.

Research synopsis: alcohol prices and taxation

Natural experiments have shown that increases or decreases in price are likely to be associated with sharp decreases or increases, respectively, in per capita alcohol consumption (e.g., Bruun et al., 1975; Cook, 1981; Cook & Moore, 1994, 2000; Chaloupka, 1993; Godfrey, 1997). For example, a study by Zhang and Casswell (1999), using time series analysis of consumption data from New Zealand, found beer consumption declined with an increase in real price during the early 1990s. They also found that an increase in wine consumption "in the 1990s was partly attributable to the decrease in real price of wine" (p. …

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