Each year, 80,000 deaths in the United States are attributable to alcohol and more than half of these fatalities are due to binge drinking — defined as downing four or more cocktails for women and five or more for men during a single drinking occasion. Now, a new study finds people living in states with stronger alcohol policies have a substantially lower likelihood of doing any binge drinking, frequent binge drinking, and high-intensity binge drinking. “If alcohol policies were a newly discovered gene, pill or vaccine, we'd be investing billions of dollars to bring them to market,” said Dr. Timothy Naimi, associate professor at Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) and the study's senior author.

How Policy Affects Behavior

Binge drinkers are not alcohol dependent, so that aren’t people who need to drink every day. Most are men, most are richer (with a household incomes of $75,000 or more) as opposed to poorer, and tend to be younger as most are between the ages of 18 and 34 years. However, those binge drinkers who are over 65 report binge drinking more often — an average of five to six times a month.

For the study, researchers analyzed data on 29 different alcohol policies that are tracked by the Alcohol Policy Information System and other data sources. Generally, examples of strong state alcohol policies include higher alcohol taxes, fewer outlets licensed to sell alcohol, bans on happy hours and discount drink specials, earlier bar closing times, and laws to reduce impaired driving. Next, the researchers asked an expert panel to rate these policies, based on their theoretical effectiveness and the degree to which they were fully implemented in a particular state and year.

After examining the results, the researchers discovered each 10 percentage point increase in the strength of a state's alcohol policy score (reflecting more effective and/or better implemented alcohol policies) was associated with an eight percent reduced likelihood of a person engaging in any binge drinking or binge drinking five or more times in the past 30 days. And each 10 percent increase was also linked to a 10 percent reduced likelihood of consuming 10 or more drinks while binge drinking.

"This study shows that alcohol policies matter — and matter a lot — for reducing a person's risk of binge drinking, which is a leading cause of premature death and disability in the U.S.," said Ziming Xuan, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of community health sciences at BUSPH.

Among all policies assessed, those raising the price of alcohol and those reducing its physical availability were the most protective against binge drinking. Within those two policy categories, higher alcohol taxes and reduced numbers of alcohol outlets accounted for nearly half of the effect of all 29 policies combined.

Source: Blanchette J, Nelson T, Oussayef N, Heeren T. American Journal of Public Health. 2014.