Cost of Alcohol and Its Consumption

Many individuals and groups call for dramatic tax increases on alcohol beverages in an effort to reduce underage drinking. 1 They believe that making alcohol more expensive will discourage consumption. That seems like a reasonable assumption.

However, the scientific evidence simply doesn't support the proposal to raise alcohol beverage prices to reduce illegal underage drinking. Logic also fails to support such a policy. The proportion of underage people who drink has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, during which time the inflation-adjusted cost of alcohol beverages also fell. Underage drinkers are largely immune to the price of alcohol beverages because they rarely buy it themselves, instead taking it from their own homes or obtaining it free elsewhere, according to federal research.

However, there is good news. The social norms marketing technique has repeatedly proven effective in reducing the use and abuse of alcohol among young people. It's based on the fact that the vast majority of young people greatly exaggerate in their minds the quantity and frequency of drinking among their peers. Therefore, they tend to drink - or drink more
-than they would otherwise, in an effort to "fit in."

When credible surveys demonstrate the actual, much lower drinking rates, and the results are widely publicized or "marketed" to this group, the imagined social pressure drops and so does youthful drinking. Study after study demonstrates this. 2

It's time for the federal government to implement the effective social norms marketing technique to reduce underage drinking.


  • 1. See for example, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Alcohol Taxation and Health Care Prevention, MADD website; Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Excise Taxes on Alcoholic Beverages, MADD website; Center for Science in the Public Interest (Alcohol Policies Project), Why Raise Alcohol Excise Taxes?, Center for Science in the Public Interest website.
  • 2. Michael P. Haines. (1996). A Social Norms Approach to Preventing Binge Drinking at Colleges and Universities. Newton, MA: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, Education Development Center, Inc. * A complete description of the first social norms marketing campaign conducted at Northern Illinois University (NIU). Annual self-report health assessment surveys and other data gathered at NIU over a multi-year period have shown significant subsequent increases in safe drinking and abstaining, as well as decreases in alcohol-related injuries.
  • Koreen Johannessen, et al. (1999). A Practical Guide to Alcohol Abuse Prevention: A Campus Case Study in Implementing Social Norms and Environmental Management Approaches. Tucson, AZ: Campus Health Service, The University of Arizona.* A detailed examination of the first four years of the University of Arizona's social norm campaign, which achieved a 29% reduction in heavy drinking.
  • H. Wesley Perkins and David Craig (2002). A Multifaceted Social Norms Approach to Reduce High-Risk Drinking. Newton, MA: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, Education Development Center, Inc.* A comprehensive presentation of the Hobart and William Smith Colleges' Social Norms Project, which achieved a 30% reduction in high-risk drinking over 5 years. Contents include a complete description of program components, including data collection, print media campaigns, electronic media campaigns, curriculum development, and campus presentations.
  • H. Wesley Perkins, (2002). "Social Norms and the Prevention of Alcohol Misuse in College Contexts." Journal of Studies on Alcohol/Supplement No. 14, 2002. * An excellent review of conceptual and empirical studies on the role of social norms in college student alcohol use and in prevention strategies to counter misuse. The normative influences of various constituencies serving as reference groups for students are examined as possible factors influencing students' drinking behavior.
  • H. Wesley Perkins, Editor (2003). The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Age Substance Abuse: A Handbook for Educators, Counselors, and Clinicians. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. An essential resource book of evidence supporting the social norms strategy and a user-friendly exposition of how model interventions have been conducted. Contents include numerous case studies of campus experiments to reduce alcohol abuse, expanding social norms to other campus applications (such as tobacco use), and using the social norms approach with adolescents and young adults in community settings.
  • *Indicates that a complete version can be accessed at the website of the National Social Norms Resource Center ( Annotated reference in footnote #2 reproduced by permission of the National Social Norms Resource Center.