Over at one of my favorite legal blogs, the Volokh Conspiracy, Duke Professor Phillip J. Cook recently wrote an interesting guest-blogging series on alcohol control policy. This is very much a topic of public debate, with the recent Amethyst Initiative group of college and university presidents that have argued for a lowering of the drinking age. All of Professor Cook’s posts are recommended reading, particularly because he approaches the issue in several refreshing ways that get beyond the same old rhetoric. There’s no particularly direct tie-in to the LDS Church, but given the general admonitions of the Word of Wisdom, I think Professor Cook’s conclusions are interesting and relevant.
Does the Mormon Church have a stance on alcohol control policy? There is no item on the Public Issues page of the LDS Newsroom like there is for abortion, child abuse, euthanasia, or embryonic stem-cell research. However, last September the Newsroom issued a press release entitled “Alcohol: A Focus on Health and Safety,” which stated; “The Church has always called for reasonable regulations to (1) limit overconsumption, (2) reduce impaired driving and (3) work to eliminate underage drinking.” The statement is heavily focused on the State of Utah, where the Mormon Church has large membership and community involvement.
The positive consequences of Utah’s current regulations on alcohol consumption are readily apparent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Utah has the lowest percentage of alcohol-related motor vehicle deaths in America. It also has the lowest per-capita alcohol consumption in the nation.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that Utahns, including those who work in the hospitality industry, can come together as citizens, regardless of religion or politics, to support laws and regulations that allow individual freedom of choice while preserving Utah’s proven positive health and safety record on limiting the tragic consequences of overconsumption of alcohol.
The LDS Church’s stance on alcohol control is a relatively pragmatic one. The same statement notes, “While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches its members to avoid alcohol altogether, it acknowledges that alcoholic beverages are available to the public.” It seems to me, then, that the LDS Church would not advocate a Prohibition-style alcohol restrictions, but rather a system of regulations that would minimize the harmful effects ofoverconsumption, impaired driving, and underage drinking.
With those goals in mind, what sort of regulatory scheme is preferable? This is where Professor Cook’s comments are enlightening. He notes that regulations aimed at the negative behaviors associated with alcohol consumption are relatively costly and difficult to enforce. His solution is to aim for the pocketbook. Professor Cook argues that the current taxation levels of alcohol are at historic lows and are insufficient to take into account the cost to society of alcohol. He follows this assertion up with some data on alcohol consumption and an interesting hypothetical:
Per capita consumption in the United States runs about 500 drinks per year, where a “drink” is a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.5 ounce shot of 80-proof spirits (all of which have about the same amount of ethanol) But that average also conceals a great deal of variation: about 35 % of adults abstain, and drinking is very concentrated within the larger group who do drink.
The famous 20-80 rule of marketing applies – 20% of the consumers of most any commodity account for 80% of the total purchased. Removing the abstainers, that means that 13% of adults consume 80% of the ethanol, and thus pay 80% of the tax. (I’ve checked this estimate against actual self-reported drinking, and it works pretty well.)
What’s more, only about 7% of adults drink more than that 500-drink per capita average. That means that 93% of the American public contribute less than average to the alcohol tax.
As a thought experiment, consider increasing the alcohol tax by 10 cents per drink and then distributing the proceeds annually to every adult, $50 each. All but 7% would come out ahead on this deal. Given the preventive effect of higher alcohol prices, even that group would benefit from lower auto insurance rates and in other ways.
This thought experiment reminds us of the nice feature of alcohol taxes – unlike other prevention measures, this one generates revenue. And taxes no longer seem quite so crude or unfair, being nicely concentrated on the heaviest drinkers where we also find most of the abuse and social costs.
Taxation isn’t my area of expertise, but this proposal piqued my interest. I doubt it would be a politically viable proposal, but it sounds great on paper. Professor Cook then discusses the more important question of how much each drink should be taxed. If a decrease in alcohol consumption causes a decrease in drunk driving deaths, child abuse, and crime, a purely health and safety approach would advocate a rate of taxation so high as to virtually eliminate (legal) drinking. This is obviously infeasible. Professor Cook writes:
The most defensible approach in my mind is to set the tax equal to the average marginal social cost of a drink, perhaps with some distinctions between beer and spirits, or between on-premise and off-premise service. Estimating the precise levels would require careful up-to-date analysis. But we don’t have to do that precise analysis to know for sure that the social costs are much higher than the current tax rates. In particular, the increases that are being proposed by various governors this year are just a small step in the right direction, far less than the full social costs.
I agree with this approach, at it would seem to fit the Mormon Church’s recommendation for a reasonable regulation to limit overconsumption, impaired driving, and underage drinking.
Photo credit: Ben McLeod.