Alcohol Tax Increase Linked To Fewer Drunk Driving Crashes

By Kelly Burch 03/28/17

Alcohol-related incidents in Maryland decreased by 6% each year after the tax increase. 

Man holding beer bottle while driving pulled over by police.

When Maryland raised the state sales tax on alcohol from 6% to 9% in 2011, state officials were only expecting increased revenues—but the measure seems to have had a variety of public health benefits as well, including reducing the rates of alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents. 

According to a study released by the University of Maryland, alcohol-related accidents dropped by 6% each year after the new tax was passed. Among drivers aged 15 to 34, drunk driving rates fell 12%. Researchers expected to see accident rates fall, but were surprised at how significant the difference was. 

"If there was no tax we would have seen the rate go down, but not to that level," Marie-Claude Lavoie, an epidemiologist at the University of Maryland and the study's lead author, told The Baltimore Sun. "The rate was already declining, but we saw declines larger than expected, much larger among young drivers.”

While states normally increase alcohol tax rates by raising the excise tax, researchers believe that raising the sales tax—like Maryland did—makes consumers more conscious of the price increase, since the additional tax is added at the register. 

The researchers also believe that the decrease in drunk-driving crashes was most significant among young drivers because they are the most sensitive to price changes. 

The sales tax increase has generated about $70 million annually, which funds health and education programs, according to the The Baltimore Sun.

The law was also promoted as a way to decrease drunk driving and underage drinking, especially by the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, an advocacy group—which is why Vincent DeMarco, president of that group, was pleased with the study's findings. “Alcohol taxes save lives. We said that to the people of Maryland in 2011, when everyone said there was no way we could increase the alcohol tax,” DeMarco said. 

The measure would be replicated in other states as a way to curb drunk driving. 

"It's very, very important that the public know that public health policies like this work," said DeMarco. "There was so much cynicism ... Our main interest was knowing that something very controversial was actually a public health success.”

Raising the tax rate has been linked to other public health benefits. After the tax increase, alcohol sales in the state fell 5%. A University of Florida study claimed that the rate increase reduced the rate of gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted disease.  

“We know increasing alcohol taxes decreases alcohol consumption," said Stephanie Staras, the lead author of the study. "We also know that people who are using alcohol are more likely to have risky sexual behavior."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.