High cost to Oregon from excessive alcohol use

Quick Summary

Today Place Matters Oregon (PMO) explores a new study that looks at the steep costs of excessive alcohol consumption for all people living in Oregon, even for those who don’t drink themselves. The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) worked with highly respected economics firm ECONorthwest to produce the report that calculated Oregon’s costs of excessive alcohol use totaled approximately $4.8 billion in 2019. Place Matters Oregon welcomes study co-author Joel Ainsworth to share some of the surprising findings.

PMO: Thank you for joining us. Let’s start at the beginning. What were you hoping to accomplish with this work?

Joel: We set out to study the economic burden of excessive alcohol use in Oregon. A few years ago, ECONorthwest estimated the economic costs of excessive drinking in the state, but this time, OHA wanted to update those costs using improved data. We performed a calculation that allowed us to get a better sense of how costs are distributed across the state’s social and economic institutions.

We divided the economic cost across four major categories: criminal justice; health care; education and human services; and productivity losses to employers, each of which have several subcategories of cost estimates. We thought it was important to understand the magnitude of those costs to learn who bears the burden of excessive alcohol use. Our goal was to help the state understand where to make additional investments and identify opportunities for policy interventions.

To do this, we used Oregon-specific data to add up those costs, and then investigated how they are distributed across groups within Oregon.

SHARE OF PUBLIC VS. PRIVATE COSTS IN OREGON FROM EXCESSIVE ALCOHOL USE IN 2019. $2.2 billion is Private. Lost earnings for workers & revenue for businesses. $2.6 billion is Public. Costs imposed on all Oregonians. Total cost is $4.8 billion.

Source: ECONorthwest calculations

PMO: In the report, you explore both public costs and private costs of excessive alcohol use. Tell us a little more about the difference.

Joel: The easiest way to think about public costs is to consider the price we all pay that goes far beyond what it costs for a six-pack of beer or a bottle of wine. Excessive drinking directly or indirectly harms all of us, by being the victim of a crime or other costs funded by our tax dollars. Fewer people in prison for alcohol-related crimes, for example, could free up public funds for education, health care and mental health services. Children born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome endure harm throughout their lives, and taxpayer dollars help support this vulnerable population.

Private costs include lost earnings to workers and lost revenue to businesses. Excessive consumption of alcohol affects the productivity of our workforce and the competitiveness of Oregon’s economy. For individual businesses it can mean missed days of work, higher turnover or increased injuries. For employees, it can mean lost or unstable income that affects a family’s well-being. There are other serious consequences of heavy and binge drinking too. In 2013, excessive drinking resulted in approximately 1,300 deaths and 34,000 years of potential life lost in Oregon.

PMO: So tell us, what are your conclusions about the total cost to Oregon of excessive alcohol use?

Joel: Based on the most recent data, we calculated that Oregon’s costs of excessive alcohol use totaled approximately $4.8 billion in 2019. Of that number, approximately $2.6 billion, or 54%, of the costs associated with excessive alcohol use are public costs that people living in Oregon pay through our tax system.

When averaged across the state’s population, the costs associated with excessive alcohol consumption are about $1,100 per person in 2019, or approximately $2.40 for every alcoholic drink consumed in Oregon.


Labor Productivity
$2.19 billion (45.6 percent of total costs) in lost earnings for businesses and employees due to excessive alcohol use. This estimate includes both alcohol users and victims of crimes involving excessive alcohol use.


Criminal Justice and Motor Vehicle Crashes
$1.30 billion (27.2 percent of total costs) for alcohol-related offenses including the cost to victims.


Health Care
$702.06 million (14.6 percent of total costs) because of hospitalization and ambulatory care to address the adverse medical effects of excessive alcohol use.


Education and Social Welfare
$605.51 million (12.6 percent of total costs) in treatment, research and human services programs related to managing issues related to excessive alcohol use.

PMO: OHA has recently launched an effort to call attention to the harms of excessive alcohol use and to start a conversation around the notion that many people living in Oregon may be drinking excessively and not realize it. What are your thoughts about this campaign?

Joel: It’s helpful to understand that overconsumption of alcohol can lead to costs that fall not only on the consumer but also on friends, family and taxpayers more broadly. And public intervention tools, like public education and mass media communications, can help change drinking habits to reduce those harms. The Rethink the Drink campaign is one way to help start that conversation and encourage us to think a little differently about the costs of excessive alcohol consumption.

Rethink the Drink logo

What is excessive alcohol use*?

Excessive Drinking: OHA uses the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) definition of excessive alcohol use. Excessive drinking includes both heavy drinking and binge drinking.

Heavy Drinking: Heavy drinking, the kind that can harm your health long-term, is 15 drinks or more a week for a man. For a woman, it’s eight drinks.

Binge Drinking: Binge drinking is when a man has five or more standard drinks in one setting or occasion. For women, it’s four or more drinks.

*The CDC numbers defining excessive drinking are different for men and women because their bodies process alcohol differently. However, it’s important to point out that the CDC numbers refer to cisgender males and females. “Cisgender” means that the gender you identify with matches the sex assigned to you at birth. When it comes to gender nonconforming individuals, more research is needed to assess the impact of excessive drinking. It’s also true that for some people, drinking any alcohol is too much. And no matter who you are, drinking less is better for your health than drinking more.

SHARE OF PUBLIC COSTS ATTRIBUTABLE TO VICTIMS OF ALCOHOL-RELATED HARMS, 2019. Chart showing multiple factors ((FAS Healthcare & Education, fire, Children & Family Welfare, crime victimization and property damage) all total to $1.6 billion in costs.

Source: ECONorthwest calculations

PMO: From everything you’ve uncovered, what would you like people living in Oregon to know about excessive alcohol use?

Joel: I think it’s important to recognize that excessive drinking is itself both a cause of harm and a symptom of broader social issues. Any policy solutions seeking to minimize the economic costs will need to wrestle both with the efficacy of those strategies at a population level and the ability of those strategies to address the inequitable distribution of harm across different socioeconomic groups. It’s a challenging and urgent public health issue, so I’m glad to see OHA engaging in this conversation.

Bottom line, I’d say there are two things that we all need to consider:

  • The cost to all of us is larger than you think it is. It is eye-opening to see how far the harm stretches across our communities.
  • Even if you’re not drinking excessively, you’re affected. We are all paying a cost.

Joel Ainsworth is a Senior Project Manager for ECONorthwest.


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