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Study suggests making alcohol more expensive could save lives

Save on liquor or save lives? Here's what new research has to say about making alcohol more expensive

Could more expensive liquor, beer, and wine save lives? Researchers say yes. A new study by Scottish officials suggests that raising the price of alcohol could significantly reduce deaths. The research, published in the Lancet on March 20, found that a pricing policy implemented in 2018 lowered deaths in Scotland by 13% or about 150 fewer deaths per year.

a clear beverage with ice in a glass on dark wooden table
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The findings indicate that the lower death rate is primarily because of a reduction in long-term conditions, notably a 23% decrease in deaths from alcohol dependence syndrome and a nearly 12% decrease from alcoholic liver disease. Notably, researchers say the most significant impact was felt among people in socio-economically deprived areas.

The Scottish government upped the price of beverages that contained more alcohol in 2018 in an attempt to try to lower drinking. Scotland held the distinction of having the highest rate of alcohol consumption-related deaths in the United Kingdom. The government used a minimum unit pricing policy. What’s that? As the name implies, it sets a base for how much a unit of alcohol can cost.

Scotland’s government chose 50 pence (70 cents in the U.S.) per 8 grams of alcohol. That’s larger than the U.S. standard drink, which has about 14 grams of alcohol.

By setting a minimum unit price, the Scottish government went after cheaper alcohol more likely to be consumed by heavy drinkers or young people with lower incomes looking to save on liquor. Instead, the Scottish government’s policy may have saved their lives.

Unlike previous research on minimum unit pricing on alcohol, which focused on the policy’s impact on consumption and sales, the new research sheds light on health, including whether more expensive liquor could reduce death rates.

Canada, Australia, and Ireland have followed Scotland’s lead and implemented a minimum pricing policy. Should we be expecting more expensive liquor in the near future in the United States?

The U.S. has not implemented a policy like Scotland’s, though Oregon and Connecticut have state-level minimum unit pricing policies for alcohol. Alcohol rates soared in the U.S. during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to one JAMA study published in 2022, alcohol-related deaths surged 25%, outpacing the 16.6% increase in all-cause mortality during the same period.

The World Health Organization European Region issued a report in 2022 outlining the potential value of minimum pricing policies to save lives. Essentially, making it harder to save on liquor (and other alcoholic beverages) could protect someone’s health.

The conversation surrounding alcohol has changed in recent years. Research from 2017 pointed to risks of cognitive decline from even moderate alcohol consumption. The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) updated its guidelines regarding alcohol consumption in January for the first time in more than 10 years. The new guidance lowered recommendations for two drinks per week, a stark difference from its prior advice for men to limit consumption to 15 drinks or less and women to stick to 10 or less. The CDC has not changed, recommending one or fewer daily drinks for women and two or fewer for men.

BethAnn Mayer
Beth Ann's work has appeared on healthline.com and parents.com. In her spare time, you can find her running (either marathons…
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