Drunk driving killed an estimated 28 people a day in 2015. In total, about 300,000 people get behind the wheel of a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol every single day. A grand total of 28.7 million people drove drunk in 2013, or about 1 in 12 Americans.
Getting a DUI is a decent deterrent to driving drunk, as it punishes people harshly for putting themselves and everyone around them at risk. People who get a DUI may face jail time, revocation of their driver’s license, and steep fines for their actions.
Yet those measures have been in place for decades, and clearly, the drunk driving phenomenon is as great a problem as it’s ever been.
However, Maryland has taken an action that has, perhaps unexpectedly, caused a significant drop in the rate of drunk driving. They raised their liquor tax, and the results speak for themselves.
What Happened When Maryland Increased Liquor Tax
Politically speaking, raising taxes is rarely discussed as the preferred way to solve a problem. Politicians don’t like to talk about raising taxes on anything, generally under any circumstances. But in 2011, Maryland raised its state’s liquor tax, from 6 percent to 9 percent.
It’s hard to say whether state lawmakers in Maryland intended for this tax to do anything other than raise funds, which were earmarked to go to schools. But the results have been vast and varied. After the rise in sales tax,
- Alcohol sales dropped in Maryland
- Binge drinking rates also went into decline
- Drunk driving decreased, especially in drivers under the age of 34
- Even sexually-transmitted diseases like gonorrhea saw a significant decline tied to the alcohol tax increase.
The results seem to be obvious – making alcohol more difficult to afford means that people drink less of it. A three-percent increase in the tax rate doesn’t seem like that big of a difference, but these results have all been positively correlated to the change, with other factors being accounted for.
In fact, those drunk driving and gonorrhea numbers dropped in Maryland while they increased nationwide. The common thread found by researchers is the alcohol tax.
It’s notable that the alcohol tax seems to have the greatest impact on the youngest people in Maryland. Teens and 20-somethings are often the most budget-conscious about their purchases due to a limited supply of disposable income.
In fact, while the percentage of drunk drivers under age 34 dropped by about 12 percent, the percentage of drunk drivers between 35-54 remained basically unchanged, and the percentage of drunk drivers over age 55 actually increased by 10 percent.
As a whole, drunk driving has declined by 6 percent in the state, but the tax has clearly impacted younger people more than others.
How Maryland’s Alcohol Tax May Impact Addiction Rates
Addiction, and especially alcoholism, can strike anyone, at any age, in any class or income bracket. Even high-profile celebrities can find themselves struggling with alcoholism. But there is one thing we know for sure: The younger you start drinking, the more susceptible you are to addiction over time.
There are, of course, different types of alcoholism, and even those are only generalities, as alcoholism affects every person a bit differently, and tends to manifest in different ways. But the common thread between all of them is simple – alcoholism needs alcohol. That’s how it works.
When alcohol is difficult to obtain, it is much more difficult to become addicted to it. Alcohol is a substance that can be used in moderation without serious issues, but when binged or otherwise abused, it becomes very dangerous and potentially addictive. But you can’t binge drink if you can’t buy enough of it to binge.
Now, keeping alcohol out of the hands of those who would abuse it by making it less affordable is not a long-term solution, and it doesn’t solve the problem for those who are already addicted. If anything, making alcohol more expensive merely exacerbates the problem for those who are already hooked. They’re not going to stop drinking just because the price went up – they’re simply going to become more desperate and ruin their finances further to fund that addiction.
But for young people who have not yet started an addiction, the simple difference between being able to afford one bottle or two, or none at all, may make the difference in whether or not they develop an alcohol problem.
We already know that the alcohol tax has impacted alcohol sales, and we know that there is a significant decline in driving under the influence of alcohol in young people since that tax was passed. Those factors combined don’t prove a decline in youth drinking, but they do show a strong correlation. And there is similarly a connection between preventing youth drinking and preventing alcoholism later in life.
That’s a good thing because the best way to treat alcoholism remains prevention. Once the addiction has taken root, it is much more difficult to beat.
How the Alcohol Tax Can Be Applied to Other States
Maryland may have simply stumbled upon these positive results, but regardless of their intentions, they’ve put a significant dent in one of the most destructive outcomes of substance abuse – drunk driving.
Specifically, the decline of drunk driving in young people is an outcome that should make 49 other states sit up and take notice. There is something to be said for making addictive substances a bit more difficult to obtain for those who are most susceptible to their effects.
However, a simple tax doesn’t help everyone, and it isn’t a true solution to the problem. People who are already addicted to alcohol need treatment for addiction. A simple tax won’t help them, because when you’re addicted, it stops mattering how much something costs. All that matters is feeding the addiction, regardless of the consequences.
A good way to serve both purposes would be to use the income from an increased alcohol tax to educating people about the nature of alcoholism and helping people get treatment who need it. Maryland’s alcohol tax goes toward schools, and certainly public schools are always deserving (and in need) of more funding.
But real work to create positive, permanent change in addiction statistics can be done if that money is instead applied to measures that prevent alcoholism and treat those who suffer from it.
What do you think about Maryland’s liquor tax? Do you think it has the potential to have similar effects in your state as it had in Maryland? Let us know what you think in the comments below.