Vice Squad
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Cook's "Paying the Tab"

Last month Vice Squad noted the release of Phil Cook's book on alcohol regulation, Paying the Tab. Last night a complimentary copy from the publisher, Princeton University Press, caught up with me; so far I have only read through the introductory Chapter 1. The book is elegantly written, almost a rebuke to the rest of the social science profession. (Disclosure -- Phil is a friend and former co-author, but I really don't recall the same level of grace in his earlier writings. Tom Schelling's blurb on the back refers to Paying the Tab as "beautifully written.")

Chapter 1 lays out the overall message, that alcohol control is too important to be confined to only a few dimensions, those of helping alcoholics and preventing drunk driving and underage consumption. Other measures that target the availability and price of alcohol can reduce the social costs of drinking while retaining most of the benefits. Cook compares the last couple of decades of alcohol control with tobacco control -- the latter has seen high (often too high, I -- and Phil, I think -- would argue) tax increases and a panoply of measures aimed at reducing the costs of smoking, while alcohol taxes generally have fallen (as inflation eats away their real value) and other control measures have languished.

I knew that about one-third of Americans do not drink in any given year, and that overall consumption is quite skewed towards the heavy drinkers, but Phil reinforces that message (page 8): "a majority of adults either don't drink at all or drink less than once per month, while the heavy drinkers at the top 10 percent of the distribution account for the bulk of sales and consumption." Wow.

I hope to have more on Paying the Tab as I make my way through it.

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