Stricter alcohol laws save lives — but for women more than men.
That’s the conclusion of a study published Thursday in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease. A team led by researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Boston University School of Public Health found that women are less likely to die from alcoholic cirrhosis in states where it is harder to buy booze or where drunk driving is more severely punished.
For men, however, state laws had no significant effect on rates of death from this liver disease.
Experts chalk the gender discrepancy up to hormones. Thanks to testosterone, men are more prone to risk-taking behaviors, which could explain why they might flout state laws by bringing a six-pack to a public park.
“Men are generally more likely to ignore legal restrictions,” said David Geary, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Missouri who was not involved in the study.
Last year, Dr. Timothy Naimi, a physician and alcohol epidemiologist at Boston University, showed that stricter laws reduce binge drinking. But he wanted to know whether these laws help to prevent alcohol-related deaths, as well.
So Naimi teamed up with Dr. Scott Hadland, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s, to look at how state alcohol laws affect deaths from alcoholic cirrhosis.
More than 35,000 American die each year from this disease, which occurs when the liver becomes overwhelmed by the amount of alcohol in the blood and can no longer function.
While booze might cost more in one state than it does in another because of state taxes, there are many other laws that can influence drinking habits: restrictions on liquor ads, times when alcohol can’t be sold, limits on how much can be bought, places where it is illegal to drink, required warnings about fetal alcohol syndrome, and more.
The researchers combined 29 different variables to create a single measure of legal stringency called the “alcohol policy scale.”
Comparing the scale for each state with cirrhosis deaths between 1999 and 2008, they found that a 10 percent increase in the strictness of liquor laws was associated with a 9 percent reduction in the number of women killed by alcoholic cirrhosis.
For men, there was only a 3 percent reduction — an effect so small that it could be attributed to chance.
In some ways, the results were no surprise to Hadland. He knew from his teenage patients that the cost of booze or the severity of drunk driving laws could dissuade them from drinking.
“I’ve really seen how the broader policy environment sends messages to youth,” he said.
Notably, state alcohol laws had little impact on American Indians or Alaska Natives. These groups often have limited access to health care, which could drive up the numbers of people who die from preventable diseases.
Plus, “state law may not diffuse onto reservations as much,” Naimi noted.
Despite these distinctions, the bottom line is that stricter alcohol policies, no matter how much you dislike them, are a good bet in terms of public health.
So if you’re living in Boston and you drive north across the New Hampshire line for cheaper booze, you might just be circumventing some life-saving legislation.