The Effects of the 2004 Reduction in the Price of Alcohol on Alcohol-Related Harm in Finland – a Natural Experiment Based on Register Data
AbstractChanges in alcohol pricing have been documented as inversely associated with changes in consumption and alcohol-related problems. Evidence of the association between price changes and health problems is nevertheless patchy and is based to a large extent on cross-sectional state-level data, or time series of such cross-sectional analyses. Natural experimental studies have been called for. There was a substantial reduction in the price of alcohol in Finland in 2004 due to a reduction in alcohol taxes of one third, on average, and the abolition of duty-free allowances for travellers from the EU. These changes in the Finnish alcohol policy could be considered a natural experiment, which offered a good opportunity to study what happens with regard to alcohol-related problems when prices go down. The present study investigated the effects of this reduction in alcohol prices on (1) alcohol-related and all-cause mortality, and mortality due to cardiovascular diseases, (2) alcohol-related morbidity in terms of hospitalisation, (3) socioeconomic differentials in alcohol-related mortality, and (4) small-area differences in interpersonal violence in the Helsinki Metropolitan area. Differential trends in alcohol-related mortality prior to the price reduction were also analysed.
A variety of population-based register data was used in the study. Time-series intervention analysis modelling was applied to monthly aggregations of deaths and hospitalisation for the period 1996-2006. These and other mortality analyses were carried out for men and women aged 15 years and over. Socioeconomic differentials in alcohol-related mortality were assessed on a before/after basis, mortality being followed up in 2001-2003 (before the price reduction) and 2004-2005 (after). Alcohol-related mortality was defined in all the studies on mortality on the basis of information on both underlying and contributory causes of death. Hospitalisation related to alcohol meant that there was a reference to alcohol in the primary diagnosis. Data on interpersonal violence was gathered from 86 administrative small-areas in the Helsinki Metropolitan area and was also assessed on a before/after basis followed up in 2002-2003 and 2004-2005. The statistical methods employed to analyse these data sets included time-series analysis, and Poisson and linear regression.
The results of the study indicate that alcohol-related deaths increased substantially among men aged 40-69 years and among women aged 50-69 after the price reduction when trends and seasonal variation were taken into account. The increase was mainly attributable to chronic causes, particularly liver diseases. Mortality due to cardiovascular diseases and all-cause mortality, on the other hand, decreased considerably among the-over-69-year-olds. The increase in alcohol-related mortality in absolute terms among the 30-59-year-olds was largest among the unemployed and early-age pensioners, and those with a low level of education, social class or income. The relative differences in change between the education and social class subgroups were small. The employed and those under the age of 35 did not suffer from increased alcohol-related mortality in the two years following the price reduction. The gap between the age and education groups, which was substantial in the 1980s, thus further broadened. With regard to alcohol-related hospitalisation, there was an increase in both chronic and acute causes among men under the age of 70, and among women in the 50-69-year age group when trends and seasonal variation were taken into account. Alcohol dependence and other alcohol-related mental and behavioural disorders were the largest category in both the total number of chronic hospitalisation and in the increase. There was no increase in the rate of interpersonal violence in the Helsinki Metropolitan area, and even a decrease in domestic violence. There was a significant relationship between the measures of social disadvantage on the area level and interpersonal violence, although the differences in the effects of the price reduction between the different areas were small.
The findings of the present study suggest that that a reduction in alcohol prices may lead to a substantial increase in alcohol-related mortality and morbidity. However, large population group differences were observed regarding responsiveness to the price changes. In particular, the less privileged, such as the unemployed, were most sensitive. In contrast, at least in the Finnish context, the younger generations and the employed do not appear to be adversely affected, and those in the older age groups may even benefit from cheaper alcohol in terms of decreased rates of CVD mortality. The results also suggest that reductions in alcohol prices do not necessarily affect interpersonal violence. The population group differences in the effects of the price changes on alcohol-related harm should be acknowledged, and therefore the policy actions should focus on the population subgroups that are primarily responsive to the price reduction.