A new study provides a detailed picture of the consequences of binge drinking, by estimating its impact on road accidents, accident and emergency (A&E) attendance and arrests.

It shows that binge drinking just over four glasses of wine (or four pints of beer) increases:

  • the number of road accidents by 18.6% and fatal accidents by 72%
  • injury-related A&E attendances by 6.6%
  • and the number of arrests for all alcohol-related incidences by 71%

These results imply nearly 6,100 extra road accidents (including 300 additional fatalities), roughly 63,000 additional A&E attendances every year and 100,000 additional arrests.

The study by Marco Francesconi and Jonathan James, published in the July 2019 issue of The Economic Journal, uses a variety of unique data from England to understand the short-term consequences of bingeing. It also estimates that the cost per mile driven by a binge drinker is about 5.3 pence, and the cost of punishment is equivalent to a fine of £22,800 per drunk driving arrest.

Heavy episodic drinking (HED), or ‘binge drinking’, is an alcohol abuse pattern characterised by periods of heavy drinking followed by abstinence. Excessive, harmful use of alcohol has been identified as one of the leading preventable causes of death and a key risk factor for chronic diseases and injuries around the world, especially in advanced economies. In Canada, Australia, Germany and the United States, for example, between 10% and 20% of all adult men binge drink (i.e., drink the alcohol equivalent of at least one bottle of wine or four pints of beer in one session) once a week. The rates for English men are even higher at 30%, as are those for women at about 20%.

Where previous research has provided important insights into the effects of HED, it has rarely attempted to study the broader effects of bingeing, focusing on subgroups (the youth population, for example) or on medical factors such as alcohol poisoning, ischaemic heart disease, alcoholic liver cirrhosis or suicide.

The authors of this study instead develop a strategy for estimating the impact of HED on several outcomes, considering multiple variations such as age and timing of alcohol consumption. With this method, the authors show how the consequences of even a moderate increase in alcohol consumption can be quite dramatic – the marginal increase from 8 to 10+ alcoholic units, for example, implies nearly 6,100 extra road accidents every year, 63,000 additional A&E attendances and 100,000 additional arrests.

The magnitude of such effects is substantial, considering that they are obtained using rather conservative definitions of HED. To assess the robustness of their results, the authors performed several sensitivity checks, such as changing the definition of binge drinking, considering the role played by illicit drugs and the possibility of spillover effects (in the context of road accidents). These checks provided further evidence to confirm their estimates. 

Liquid Assets? the Short-Run Liabilities of Binge Drinking by Marco Francesconi and Jonathan James is published in the July 2019 issue of The Economic Journal

Jonathan James

Senior Lecturer in Economics at University of Bath