Tobacco and alcohol are a troublesome pairing. Since smoking enhances the addictive effects of alcohol - and vice versa - people tend to drink and smoke more when these drugs are used together. But new research suggests that it may be possible to exploit the link between tobacco and alcohol to reduce their use.
A Stanford-led team of researchers found that increases in tobacco taxes were associated with lower alcohol consumption among certain groups of people. This finding suggests that an increased tobacco tax may simultaneously reduce smoking and alcohol consumption.
I corresponded with the study's lead author, Stanford postdoctoral student Kelly Young-Wolff, PhD, to find out more about the recently published study and how the findings might be applied to efforts to control cigarette and alcohol use.
“Cigarette taxes have broad population reach and have been recognized as one of the most significant policy instruments to reduce smoking,” Young-Wolff told me. "Given the high co-occurrence of drinking and smoking, we hypothesized that the public health benefits of cigarette taxes would extend beyond smoking to reduce alcohol consumption."
Using data from a prospective, longitudinal survey of U.S. adults, the team tested their theory by examining whether increases in cigarette taxes were associated with reductions in alcohol consumption across two periods of data collection (2001-2002 and 2004-2005). State tobacco taxes increased between the first and second time period for about half of the participants (10,936 of 21,473 people living in 31 of 46 states included in the study), which gave the researchers a way to assess whether or not higher tobacco taxes were associated with alcohol consumption.
In their study, published online last Friday in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, the team found that smokers living in states with increased tobacco taxes tended to drink less. The result was most pronounced for male smokers - particularly among groups of males who drank heavily, were young, or had lower incomes.
Since tobacco and alcohol use is linked, it’s unsurprising that they rank first and third (respectively) on the list of most preventable causes of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control. “The co-occurrence of smoking and drinking is of particular clinical significance given evidence that health consequences increase with combined versus singular abuse of alcohol and tobacco,” explained Young-Wolff. Yet, despite the known link between tobacco and alcohol use, relatively few studies have explored ways a tougher tobacco tax could affect the use of these two addictive substances.
The new results suggest that the beneficial effects of increased tobacco taxes could spread beyond the sale, purchase and use of tobacco products. "Our finding that increases in cigarette taxes may have the added public health benefit of reducing alcohol consumption among vulnerable segments of the population is promising, and it highlights the importance of research that targets the interactions of tobacco and alcohol," Young-Wolff explained.
This study could set the stage for researchers to investigate other possible second-hand benefits of increased tobacco taxes, such as reductions in alcohol-related violence, drunk driving, and alcohol-related illness and death, Young-Wolff continued. "Our results add to evidence of the public health benefits of cigarette taxes, which have already been shown to reduce smoking, and can be brought to the policy debates to more fully capture the public health effects of cigarette taxes for prevention and treatment."
Holly MacCormick is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. She is a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California-Santa Cruz.
Previously: Stanford professor shares potential downside of an increased tobacco tax, Kicking the smoking habit for good and How have U.S. tobacco regulations affected smokers?
Photo by Office on Women's Health