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Low alcohol prices are a potent risk factor for excessive drinking, underage drinking, and adverse alcohol-attributable outcomes. Presently, there is little reported information on alcohol prices in the U.S., in particular as it relates to the costs of potentially beneficial amounts of alcohol.
To determine the minimum financial outlay necessary to purchase individual brands of alcohol using online alcohol price data from January through March 2012.
The smallest container size and the minimum price at which that size beverage could be purchased in the U.S. in 2012 were determined for 898 brands of alcohol, across 17 different alcoholic beverage types. The analyses were conducted in March 2012.
The majority of alcoholic beverage categories contain brands that can be purchased in the U.S. for very low minimum financial outlays.
In the U.S., a wide variety of alcohol brands, across many types of alcohol, are available at very low prices. Given that both alcohol use and abuse are responsive to price, particularly among adolescents, the prevalence of low alcohol prices is concerning. Surveillance of alcohol prices and minimum pricing policies should be considered in the U.S. as part of a public health strategy to reduce excessive alcohol consumption and related harms.
Low alcohol prices are a potent risk factor for excessive drinking, underage drinking, and adverse alcohol-attributable outcomes.1–7 Conversely, raising the price of alcohol through taxes or by other means may be one of the most effective ways to reduce excessive alcohol consumption and related harms.3,4 For example, a recent study reported that an alcohol tax of $0.25 per drink would result in a 9.2% reduction in alcohol consumption, including an 11.4% reduction in heavy drinking.5
Inflation-adjusted alcohol prices have dropped in recent decades, due to alcohol excise taxes not being increased to keep up with inflation, but also to real declines in those taxes in some jurisdictions.8–10 Because alcohol consumption is responsive to price, these decreases have had important public health ramifications. Presently, there is little reported information on trends in alcohol prices in the U.S. These data would be useful to monitor current prices and price trends, to identify cheap alcohol brands that may contribute disproportionately to both excessive drinking and youth drinking, and to evaluate the impact of interventions to raise the price of alcohol.
Using online alcohol price data, DiLoreto et al.11 provided the first comprehensive review and analysis of the ethanol content and price of specific alcohol brands. The current study extends that initial investigation by examining the total price (and price per drink) for the smallest container in which each brand is sold, meaning the minimum amount of money that must be spent to buy each brand. In some cases, the price per ounce of alcohol might be relatively high, yet purchasing that particular brand might still require only a minimal financial outlay for a small container. This analysis is particularly relevant for understanding purchasing behavior among adolescents, who typically have limited funds, and it will provide additional insight into the availability of low-priced alcohol products.
The brand list developed for the DiLoreto et al. study11 catalogued the prices for 898 alcohol brands across 17 different alcoholic beverage types: table wine (306), beer (132), vodka (86), cordials/liqueurs (77), flavored alcoholic beverages (62), rum (54), tequila (33), whiskey (29), gin (27), scotch (25), bourbon (23), brandy (15), alcoholic energy drinks (11), cognac (9), low-end fortified wine (5), and grain alcohol (5). From January through early March 2012, an Internet search was performed using the Google search engine’s “shopping” option to determine the smallest container size and corresponding price (i.e., the “minimum financial outlay”) for each of the 898 alcohol brands.
Each search was performed by starting with the smallest typical volume size for each alcohol type and then decreasing the volume amount from there until the smallest container size was identified. The brand’s availability for purchase in that container was verified by clicking through to the Google-located online store through which it had been identified. Next, again using the Google “shopper” option, a new search was done to determine the lowest price available for each brand’s smallest container size (e.g., by typing in Seagram’s Gin 50 ml $).
The number of standard drinks was calculated by multiplying the beverage’s total volume by the percentage alcohol (ethanol) by volume, and then dividing by the size of a standard drink in the U.S. (0.6 fluid ounces of ethanol). All analyses were conducted at the end of March 2012.
Across alcoholic beverage categories, there is wide variability in the minimum financial outlays required to purchase alcohol brands in their smallest available container. For example, the median minimum outlay is $1.49 for beer and $1.89 for fortified wine, whereas the median minimum outlay for wine is $8.05. Several beverage categories have a median minimum outlay in the $2.00 to $3.00 range, including bourbon ($2.79), brandy ($2.99), cordials/liqueurs ($2.99), vodka ($2.49), whiskey ($2.35), and flavored alcoholic beverages ($2.90).
Table 1 presents the 25 cheapest brands in terms of minimum financial outlay, the number of standard drinks in each brand’s smallest container size, the price per drink, and the number of standard drinks that can be purchased with $5.00. Spirits (20 of the 25 brands) dominate the list, and the vast majority of brands were available in a package size equivalent to at least one standard drink. In addition, because the price per drink was less than $1.00 for 21 of the brands, an outlay of $5.00 purchased five or more drinks for 80% of these brands. For example, a 50-ml container size of New Amsterdam gin holds 1.13 standard drinks, so that $5.00 can purchase almost ten standard drinks (9.72). A complete listing of the brand-specific minimum financial outlays can be found at www.youthalcoholbrands.com/outlay.html.
To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the minimum amount of money required to purchase the smallest available containers for a wide range of brands in the U.S. The majority of alcoholic beverage categories—particularly spirits—contain brands that can be purchased for very little money. In addition, there are a number of brands for which customers can spend $5.00 or less and buy enough alcohol to become legally intoxicated.
Since low-priced brands are available in most beverage categories, policies that raise taxes on only certain types of alcoholic beverages will not necessarily limit the ability of underage youth to purchase inexpensive alcohol. Therefore, both broad-based pricing policies (e.g., standardized excise taxes across beverage types, minimum pricing) and specific measures to address the availability of alcohol products with low minimum financial outlays are warranted. For example, the ability of youth to access alcohol might be curtailed by regulating the availability of single-serve, ready-to-drink alcoholic beverages, or by setting minimum prices that cover all alcoholic beverages.
Several recent studies suggest that these types of alcohol policies may be effective.6,12,13 These investigations found that establishing a minimal alcohol price6,12 and restricting the sale of single-serve containers13 were effective in reducing alcohol consumption6,12 or reducing rates of neighborhood violent crime.13 More recently, England has proposed14 and Scotland has passed a minimum pricing policy,15 which, as suggested, may be even more effective than merely raising excise taxes because it ensures that there are no low-priced products on the market that may appeal specifically to underage or high-volume drinkers.
Several limitations should be acknowledged. First, little is known about youth access to small alcohol container sizes and how that relates to per-ounce prices or minimum financial outlays. Importantly, alcoholic beverages that can be purchased in larger container sizes but at lower cost are exceptions to the “minimum financial outlay” analyses presented in this paper. Second, the data set was created using stores with posted Internet prices, which do not necessarily represent a systematic store sample. However, these data reflect current Internet prices in the marketplace and therefore lend an essential snapshot of low alcohol pricing in the U.S.11 In addition, Internet prices from store to store for particular brands are similar, as expected with web-based products in which price comparisons are readily available for comparable products.
The minimum financial outlay data show that a wide variety of alcohol brands, across many types of alcoholic beverages, are available at extremely low prices in the U.S. Given that alcohol use and abuse are responsive to price, particularly among adolescents, the prevalence of very low alcohol prices is concerning. Surveillance of alcohol prices, minimum pricing policies, and increased taxes should be considered in the U.S. as part of a public health strategy to reduce excessive alcohol consumption and related harms.
This research was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Grant R01 AA020309-01.
No financial disclosures were reported by the authors of this paper.
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