SOURCE: University of Florida, news release; April 2, 2015, statement, Distillers Spirits Council of the United States
MONDAY, April 6, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Higher alcohol taxes in Illinois are associated with a decrease in alcohol-related car crash deaths, a new study finds.
"Similar alcohol tax increases implemented across the country could prevent thousands of deaths from car crashes each year," Alexander Wagenaar, a professor in the department of health outcomes and policy at the University of Florida in Gainesville, said in a university news release.
"If policymakers are looking to address dangerous drivers on our roads and reduce the number of fatalities, they should reverse the trend of allowing inflation to erode alcohol taxes," he added.
In Illinois, alcohol-related traffic deaths fell 26 percent after the state boosted alcohol taxes in 2009. The decrease was highest among young people, at 37 percent, the study found.
Fatal crashes involving alcohol-impaired and extremely drunk drivers fell 22 percent and 25 percent, respectively.
However, while the study was able to find an association between higher alcohol taxes and fewer alcohol-related traffic deaths, it wasn't designed to prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
The study appeared online recently in the American Journal of Public Health.
In 2009, Illinois boosted its excise tax on beer by 4.6 cents a gallon, on wine by 66 cents a gallon, and on distilled spirits by $4.05 a gallon, according to the study.
If the entire tax increases were passed on to consumers, a glass of beer or a glass of wine would cost less than a penny more, and a single serving of spirits would cost 4.8 cents more, the researchers said.
They noted that alcohol has become much less expensive in recent decades due to decreases in alcohol tax rates. For example, having more than 10 drinks a day would have cost the average person about half of his or her disposable income in 1950, compared with only 3 percent of disposable income in 2011, according to the study authors.
"While our study confirms what dozens of earlier studies have found -- that an increase in alcohol taxes reduces drinking and reduces alcohol-related health problems, what is unique is that we identified that alcohol taxes do in fact impact the whole range of drinking drivers, including extremely drunk drivers," Wagenaar said.
"This goes against the conventional wisdom of many economists, who assert that heavy drinkers are less responsive to tax changes, and has powerful implications for how we can keep our communities safer," he added.
Responding to the study, the Distilled Spirits Council took issue with the findings.
"Repeated studies, including research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, have shown that alcohol abusers are not deterred by higher prices," the industry group said in a statement. "It is the moderate, responsible consumers who are most sensitive to prices and are the ones that cut back the most when prices increase.
"The nation's distillers are totally opposed to drunk driving and have a long history of supporting comprehensive anti-drunk driving measures," the group added.
Alcohol-related crashes cause nearly 10,000 deaths and half a million injuries every year in the United States, the study authors noted.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about impaired driving.