Every 51 minutes there is a car accident death due to drunk driving. A new University of Florida study investigated whether simply raising the alcohol tax might have an effect on that tragic United States’ statistic. Fatal drunk driving-related car crashes declined by 26 percent each month, researchers found, after Illinois instituted a higher alcohol tax.

“My entire career has focused on studying ways to prevent or reduce injuries, diseases, deaths before they happen, instead of trying to treat the injuries or diseases afterward,” Dr. Alexander C. Wagenaar, an epidemiologist and professor at the UF College of Medicine, told Medical Daily in an email when explaining why he decided to conduct this study. “Dozens if not hundreds of previous studies (by others) showed that alcohol tax rates affect drinking, so it was natural to then study whether and how tax changes might affect alcohol-impaired driving.”


Alcohol is much more affordable today than in the past. Drinking more than 10 alcoholic beverages each day, the researchers of the current study say, costs the average person only three percent of her or his disposable income, while the same amount in 1950 would amount to half the average person’s disposable income. Part of the reason drinking is so much less expensive is due to the fact that alcohol tax rates have declined.

There’s a dark side to economic ease, though. In 2012, nearly one-third of all traffic-related deaths were due to drunk driving, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: a total of 10,322 people died.

For the current study, Wagenaar and his co-researchers examined the 104 months prior to and the 28 months following the enactment of a new tax on alcohol in Illinois. In August 2009, that state raised its excise tax on alcohol, and, assuming the cost was passed on to the consumer, this resulted in a 4-cent increase per glass of beer, a 5-cent increase per glass of wine, and a 4.8-cent increase per single serving of spirits. Considering this tax was instituted during the recession, the researchers believe this had greater impact.

The researchers discovered fatal alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes declined 9.9 per month after the tax increase, a 26 percent reduction. Drivers under the age of 30 showed larger declines than those over 30, yet no significant differences existed for gender and race. While accidents caused by drunk driving are of great importance, economics has an effect on other health outcomes. In a study published last year, Wagenaar and his colleagues examined the effects of the same Illinois tax on sexually transmitted infections in the state. There, the researchers found a decrease by 21 percent in state-wide rates of gonorrhea, while chlamydia decreased by 11 percent. An estimated 3,506 fewer gonorrhea infections and 5,844 fewer chlamydia infections annually are due to a simple increase in the price of alcohol.

Wagenaar and his colleagues continue to explore the ways in which economic disincentives may alter and shape public health. “At the moment, we are studying another state which recently made a quite different type of change in alcohol tax, and are looking at whether that affected risky sex, as reflected in the rates of common sexually transmitted infections,” Wagenaar, author of Public Health Law Research: Theory and Methods, told Medical Daily.

Source: Wagenaar AC, Livingston MD, Staras SS. Effects of a 2009 Illinois Alcohol Tax Increase on Fatal Motor Vehicle Crashes. Am J Public Health. 2015.