Tax hikes on cigarettes have proven to drop tobacco consumption. No shock there; if something costs more, people tend to limit purchases. But research released Friday suggests that higher cigarette taxes are also associated with reduced alcohol consumption, at least among male and young adult smokers.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 46 million Americans both smoke and drink. And past research has shown that “smokers drink more,” Ali Yurasek, a psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Memphis who’s studied the link, told NBC News.
The new study -- conducted by researchers from Yale, Stanford and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, and published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research -- compared almost 11,000 people in 31 states that increased cigarette taxes between the 2001-2002 period and the 2004-2005 period, with a similar number of people from 15 states in which taxes remained the same.
Using reported alcohol consumption between the two time periods as captured by the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, the researchers were able to track any differences.
“What our analysis shows is an association between increasing cigarette tax and decreasing [alcohol consumption] among segments of the population, those being male smokers, male hazardous drinkers, and young adult smokers in particular,” Sherry A. McKee, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University Medical School, and one of the study’s authors, said in an interview.
Male smokers drank approximately 10 percent less alcohol per session, and binged approximately seven fewer times per year in states with tobacco tax hikes, compared with male smokers who were not hit with the higher taxes.
Young adult smokers 18-29 in states that raised cigarette taxes cut episodes of binge drinking per year by nearly one-quarter. Again, the effect was mainly among males.
“That’s pretty consistent with behavioral economics concepts,” said Yurasek, who recently published work showing smokers are willing to pay more for alcohol than non-smokers.
That’s because cigarettes and booze go together like chips and dip. They are what economists call “complements,” like hamburger and buns or coffee and sugar. Often, when the price of one complementary good rises, consumption of the other falls.
McKee stressed that this epidemiological study does not prove cause-and-effect because it can’t control for a number of other possible factors such as people moving from one state to another between time periods, and the fact that the survey relies on self-reports of alcohol use.
Still, the apparent effect makes sense, as does the difference between men and women in the study.
First, using alcohol and nicotine together has “additive” effects on the brain, McKee said.
Lab studies with animals have shown that exposing a key part of the brain involved in reward and motivation to nicotine increases the response of dopamine-emitting neurons to alcohol. In other words, nicotine can make booze seem more rewarding. Lab animals given nicotine will drink more booze.
Second, while the full explanation for the male-female difference isn't yet fully understood, alcohol and nicotine have slightly different effects on men and women. For example, men typically produce more brain dopamine in response to booze than women do.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which used data from 2004 and 2005, males are about twice as likely to report binge drinking and heavy alcohol use as females.
Alcohol and tobacco are additive in another way: using both increases the risk of some serious cancers, like head and neck and oral cancers.
When asked what her results might say about the current “e-cigarette,” craze, McKee said that while the devices haven’t been studied specifically for interactions with alcohol, studies have shown “that when nicotine has been administered in other forms aside from cigarettes, or tobacco, we do see increases in drinking behavior.”
Brian Alexander is a frequent contributor to NBC News and a co-author of “The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction.”