Did higher alcohol taxes cut deaths? Alaskans aren't so sure

One way to stop so many people from being killed by diseases linked to alcohol abuse? Higher taxes on alcohol.

That's the conclusion of a new study about two Alaska alcohol tax increases that is getting national attention -- even as skeptics in the state question the results. They challenge one of the study's assumptions -- that people drank less because of higher alcohol prices.

In fact, data published on the state of Alaska's Web site shows that consumption of alcohol here has been fairly flat since 1991.

The new study by researchers with the University of Florida relied on more than 100 earlier studies that found when the price of alcohol goes up, people generally drink less. They didn't investigate whether that happened in Alaska.

The researchers gathered information from death certificates to examine how many Alaskans died from alcohol-related diseases such as liver cirrhosis, pancreatitis, and various cancers as well as alcohol poisoning over nearly three decades to assess the effect of alcohol tax hikes in 1983 and 2002. They didn't look at violent or accidental deaths.

They concluded that higher taxes had a big impact.

After Alaska's 1983 tax increase -- just a dime per gallon of beer or wine, and $1.50 on a gallon of hard liquor -- deaths dropped 29 percent, they said. After a much bigger 2002 increase, deaths dropped 11 percent, the study found.

"It's the ultimate outcome," said Alexander Wagenaar, the lead researcher and an epidemiology professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine.

"The bottom line is that the increase in the tax is saving lives and it's having a substantial effect," Wagenaar said.

The study, just released by the American Journal of Public Health, was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and will be published in the January issue. It's the first of its kind, Wagenaar said.

Alaska was picked because of two significant tax increases -- something no other state had, Wagenaar said.

Officials with the state Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse were taking their first look at the study late Thursday and said that if deaths are dropping, it's probably not because of a higher tax alone.

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