Alcohol Regulation and Domestic Violence towards Children

By Markowitz, Sara; Grossman, Michael | Contemporary Economic Policy, July 1998 | Go to article overview

Alcohol Regulation and Domestic Violence towards Children

Markowitz, Sara, Grossman, Michael, Contemporary Economic Policy


Alcohol use and abuse is an important research topic because of the significant costs alcohol abuse imposes on individual users, their families, and society as a whole. Individual costs may include those related to employment, such as reduced productivity, absenteeism, or unemployment. Health related costs arise due to diseases such as liver cirrhosis or chronic conditions resulting from poor birth outcomes. Societal costs may include motor vehicle accidents and fatalities that result from drunk driving. Finally, the emotional and physical harm often done to the children and spouses of heavy alcohol users may be costly to both individuals and society.

The existing economic research on alcohol focuses on many of the harmful outcomes of alcohol abuse, with one notable exception. Currently, there is little work on the role of alcohol and domestic violence. Many studies from other disciplines have shown that alcohol plays a significant role in incidents of domestic violence. For example, it is estimated that about 40% of all cases of child maltreatment (including physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect) involve alcohol (Children of Alcoholics Foundation, 1996). Because of the prevalence of alcohol in such violence, it may be possible to reduce domestic violence through changes in certain economic policies that affect the demand for alcohol. The purpose of this paper, therefore, is to identify some economic policy tools through which the incidence of physical violence towards children may be reduced.


The link between alcohol and violence has been the focus of many biological, psychological, sociological, and epidemiological studies. While each discipline seeks to answer its own questions about the association, for the purpose of this paper one can draw a few main conclusions from the existing literature. First, there is general agreement that a strong link exists between alcohol consumption and violence. In a variety of settings, alcohol is found to have been used prior to assault. An overwhelming amount of evidence shows that the use of alcohol is prevalent in many cases of criminal assaults and rapes (see Collins, 1981 for an overview). In the context of child abuse, Gil (1973) finds that 13% of child abuse cases involved a perpetrator who was intoxicated at the time of the attack.(1) Many other studies link alcoholism to child abuse. Behling (1979) finds that in 69% of cases of child abuse, at least one parent was an alcoholic. Famularo et al. (1986) find that of parents who had lost custody of their children because of abuse and neglect, 38% were alcoholics. Given the general association between alcohol use and violence, the question of importance is how alcohol use may promote violent behavior. While this paper makes no attempt to explain the causes of the link, a few relevant theories deserve review. To begin, there is no general agreement in the existing literature on the nature of this observed association. Theories range from simple pharmacological effects to the complex interaction of endocrinological, neurobiologic, environmental, social, and cultural determinants (see National Research Council, 1993, chapter 4; and Goldstein, 1985, for further information). For example, there may exist a psychopharmacological relationship in which alcohol can alter behavior by increasing excitability and/or boosting courage (see Fagan, 1993, for a complete discussion). Under this theory, people may be more likely to commit a violent act when under the influence of alcohol than they would otherwise. A second theory asserts that people use alcohol as an excuse for aberrant behavior. Our society teaches people that alcohol use may cause people to lose their inhibitions and/or release violent tendencies, and thus users cannot be fully blamed for their actions. In other words, drunkenness may give people an excuse for violence, despite whether or not actual pharmacological effects exist (see Gelles and Cornell, 1990). …

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