clock menu more-arrow no yes

Where excessive drinking habits hurt society the most

A new study shows the striking cost of alcohol on the American economy: Excessive drinking cost the US $249 billion in 2010, or $2.05 per drink — a significant increase from $223.5 billion in 2006, or $1.90 per drink.

The study, released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calculated the cost of alcohol in each state, based on estimates from previous research in the field. The researchers said that, if anything, the new numbers are underestimates, since information about alcohol-related harms is often underreported or unavailable.

But the state-level estimates are striking nonetheless, with alcohol costing society anywhere from $592 per person in Utah to $1,526 per person in Washington, DC. On a per-drink basis, alcohol cost society the least in New Hampshire ($0.92 per drink) and the most in New Mexico ($2.77 per drink).

Alcohol costs society more than $2.40 per drink in some states.

About 77 percent of these costs are from binge drinking, defined as when men drink five or more drinks on one occasion and women drink four or more drinks. About 40 percent of the costs — roughly $100 billion — were paid by governments.

What contributes to these costs? Alcohol is associated with a host of problems, such as lost productivity, more crime (40 percent of violent crimes in the US involve alcohol), early death (one in 10 deaths among working-age adults are due to excessive drinking), and emergency room visits (more than 4.6 million in 2010). These effects can vary from state to state, depending on other socioeconomic conditions.

The numbers are startling. But they're also revealing about one of the major problems in US drug policy today: Although we tend to pay a lot of attention to polices around illegal drugs, it's quite often the legal substances — tobacco, alcohol, opioid painkillers — that are the deadliest and costliest in raw numbers.

With alcohol in particular, there are lots of policies that could help deal with the issue: a higher alcohol tax, 24/7 Sobriety Programs that monitor people's drinking after they get in trouble with the law, and having state governments monopolize alcohol sales so they can better regulate the drug — all ideas that studies have found would cut down on excessive drinking.

But since alcohol is so culturally accepted, and policymakers, as a result, don't take it very seriously as a public health issue, these types of policies don't get much consideration. The result, according to the CDC's study, is hundreds of billions in costs each year.

Correction: This article originally overstated the number of deaths caused by excessive drinking among working-age adults.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.