Tax alcohol to reduce crime

Chico native deflates Chico Police chief’s correlation between bars and crime

The author is a Chico native and graduate of Chico State. He earned a doctorate in economics from the University of Wyoming in 2012 and is currently a research fellow at the University of Oxford, UK.

In a letter sent to the Chico City Council in July, Police Chief Kirk Trostle recommended that the council not make a determination of public convenience concerning the issuance of an alcoholic-beverage license for the Winchester Goose. In defense of his recommendation, Trostle referenced a study completed by the Mendocino Department of Public Health claiming to show that alcohol establishments cause crime.

Mr. Trostle has since reversed his position regarding the licensing of the Winchester Goose, but the question remains whether limiting the number of alcohol establishments is a viable crime-fighting strategy. While Trostle has argued that it is, the study he referenced fails to make his case.

Rather, the study simply shows that areas dense with alcohol outlets are also dense with crime. But the idea that there is an underlying causal relationship is simply an assumption, unsupported by any evidence. Using similar logic, one may argue that police cause crime because there seem to be arrests only when police are around.

There are many reasons to think that areas with a lot of alcohol outlets would be matched with a lot of crime. For starters, bars may be demanded, at least in part, by criminals. Or perhaps police officers simply look for criminals in areas with a lot of bars. The point here is that your guess is as good as mine.

It’s an even larger stretch to argue that limiting the number of alcohol outlets will have any effect on alcohol consumption—let alone crime. Luckily, economists and criminologists have studied such things for decades. Here is what they have found: First, decreasing alcohol consumption likely decreases crime. Second, increasing the price of alcohol will decrease alcohol consumption—and thus indirectly lead to a decrease in crime. Third, and particularly relevant to the current debate taking place in Chico, limiting the number of alcohol establishments has no conclusive effect on either alcohol consumption or crime.

The answer to Chico’s drinking problem therefore appears to be an additional tax on alcohol. However, the state of California reserves the right to tax alcohol sales. What can we do then? One option is to lobby state representatives for a tax hike. While this may seem like a futile attempt to reduce crime, so does denying a local bar a license to operate—and it doesn’t keep me from enjoying a good beer at a new bar in Chico.