[Paleopsych] NYT: To Reduce the Cost of Teenage Temptation, Why Not Just Raise the Price of Sin?
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Tue Jul 26 19:38:30 UTC 2005
To Reduce the Cost of Teenage Temptation, Why Not Just Raise the Price of Sin?
By DAVID LEONHARDT
WHEN you look back on all the attempts to curb teenage drinking,
smoking and drug use over the last couple of decades, you start to ask
yourself a question that countless parents have asked: Does anybody
really know how to change a teenager's behavior?
Sometimes the government and advocacy groups have used straight talk,
like Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign. Other times they have
tried to play it cool. They drop an egg into a sizzling frying pan and
announce, "This is your brain on drugs," or they print mock
advertisements that pretend to market cancer. It all feels like a
delicate exercise in adolescent psychology.
Much of this back and forth is unnecessary. There is in fact a
surefire way to get teenagers to consume less beer, tobacco and drugs,
according to one study after another: raise the cost, in terms of
either dollars or potential punishment.
In just about every state that increased beer taxes in recent years,
teenage drinking soon dropped. The same happened in the early 1990's
when Arizona, Maryland, New Jersey and a handful of other states
passed zero-tolerance laws, which suspend the licenses of under-21
drivers who have any trace of alcohol in their blood. In states that
waited until the late 90's to adopt zero tolerance, like Colorado,
Indiana and South Carolina, the decline generally did not happen until
after the law was in place.
Teenagers, it turns out, are highly rational creatures in some ways.
Budweisers and Marlboros are discretionary items, and their customers
treat them as such. Gasoline consumption, by contrast, changes only
marginally when the price of a gallon does.
"When people think about drugs, alcohol, even cigarettes, they think
about addiction and this strong desire to consume them. They don't
think price has an effect," said Sara Markowitz, an economist at
Rutgers University in Newark, who studies public health. "That's just
wrong. And it holds among kids even more so than among adults."
Not only that, but unprotected sex tended to become less common after
the changes in the law, according to studies. Gonorrhea and H.I.V.
rates dropped. So did drunken-driving deaths and, for boys, suicides.
Whatever the policies' downsides - and they are not insignificant -
they have some of the clearest benefits of any government action.
They are also a useful reminder of how often the power of incentives
is underestimated. Taste, style, trendiness and advertising all do
affect human behavior. A study in the Archives of Pediatric and
Adolescent Medicine this month, for example, found that antitobacco
television ads do seem to reduce smoking. But nothing has quite the
sway that an economic carrot or stick does.
When a big superstore moves into town, many shoppers who claim to
prefer the coziness of mom-and-pop stores trek out to the megamall for
the lower prices. (You know who you are.) When the government cut
welfare payments in the 1990's, many people who had been receiving
them went back to work.
Even when inscrutable teenagers and addictive substances are involved,
the basic dynamic does not change.
Tax increases on alcohol and tobacco have been fairly common in recent
years, allowing researchers to look for the crucial before-and-after
effect that helps separate correlation from causation. Alaska,
Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee and Utah have all increased alcohol taxes
since 2002. Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia -
tobacco-growing states all - are among those that have raised
Just because states with higher taxes have lower teenage drinking and
smoking rates does not mean that one caused the other. An outside
force - like a highly educated population, which might tend to eschew
beer and cigarettes but vote for higher taxes - could instead be the
But if drinking or smoking always seems to fall after a tax increase,
then the case becomes far stronger. Looking across the states and
taking into account all the other factors that can be measured,
researchers have found that a 1 percent increase in the price of beer
leads to a drop in teenage consumption of between 1 and 4 percent, Dr.
Markowitz said. For cigarettes, a 1 percent price increase causes
roughly a 1 percent decline in smoking.
Using the same method, researchers can also answer a question that has
long occupied public health specialists. It is generally accepted that
youngsters who drink, smoke and use drugs are also more likely to take
dangerous risks, like having unprotected sex. But does one lead to the
other? Or as Christopher Carpenter, an economist at the University of
California, Irvine, puts it, are there simply "bad kids" given to
misbehaving in all sorts of ways?
Depending on your definition of misbehavior, the answer is both. When
alcohol taxes rose, the number of teenagers who reported having had
sex in recent months did not change, according to a study by Michael
Grossman of the City University of New York and Dr. Markowitz. Nor did
the number of partners they had.
But fewer teenagers had unprotected sex. The number of new gonorrhea
cases and - though the evidence on this was weaker - new H.I.V. cases
also dropped. Since teenagers get these diseases at far higher rates
than the rest of the population, any decline can be a big deal.
The enactment of zero-tolerance driving laws also appeared to lead to
a fall in sexually transmitted diseases. For boys between the ages of
15 and 20, suicide rates fell 7 percent to 10 percent after a law was
put in place, Dr. Carpenter found. (The fact that the effects seem to
be concentrated among boys and whites is a mystery that awaits future
"When zero-tolerance laws were being debated, it wasn't like, 'Let's
reduce drunk-driving deaths - and gonorrhea and suicide,' " he said.
"This is an unintended, surprising consequence."
Zero-tolerance laws also have the advantage of being aimed
specifically at teenagers. New alcohol taxes, on the other hand, take
money from millions of people who do not spread venereal diseases or
But zero tolerance is now the law of the land in all 50 states, Dr.
Carpenter said. There is no more public health uptick to get from it.
So until somebody comes up with a smart new incentive, another "Don't
Drink and Drive" campaign might be the best tool out there.
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