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Alcohol and Crime: Behavioral Aspects - Natural Experiments

rates availability sales changes

In time series analyses, many co-occurring social trends could account for covariation in both drinking and crime. For example, per capita consumption and crime rates could both rise at the same time due to increases in the number of young men in the population in the postwar period. Although this problem can be partially solved with statistical techniques (Skog), trends may still be confounded with other trends. A more powerful analysis can be conducted by studying crime rates before and after sudden changes in alcohol availability or policies about alcohol distribution. Because population characteristics are unlikely to change drastically at exactly the same time as changes in alcohol availability, these "natural experiments" provide an opportunity to distinguish the effects of alcohol consumption from those of naturally-occurring trends (Lipsey et al.).

Restrictions or expansions of alcohol availability can arise from changes in alcohol policies, from changes in distribution caused by labor strikes, and as a result of social movements. Leif Lenke examined the consequences of several policy changes in Sweden, including rationing during the First World War, the repeal of a ration-book system in 1955, the legalization of sales of medium-strength beer in grocery stores in 1965 and of sales of strong beer in grocery stores in some provinces in 1967, and the discontinuation of Saturday opening hours at state-owned alcohol sales outlets in 1981. Although the results were not completely consistent, Lenke concluded that "When availability of alcohol has been reduced or increased, the rates of violent crimes have tended to follow the same direction" (p. 103). In Norway, assault rates declined following the closing of the state-owned alcohol sales outlets on Saturdays (Olsson and Wikstrom), and in the former Soviet Union, male homicide rates decreased by 40 percent following the alcohol reform of 1985 (homicide rates rose again when the reform broke down as a result of the illicit market and the dissolution of the Soviet Union) (Shkolnikov and Nemtsov).

A series of studies from the Nordic countries have examined the consequences of temporary reductions in alcohol availability due to labor strikes. In general, these studies show reductions in casualty ward injury admissions, assault and battery cases, and incidents of family violence during the strike period. For example, during a 1972 strike in Finland, there were noticeable reductions in levels of aggravated assault—a crime in which 80–90 percent of both perpetrators and victims in Finland are intoxicated (Mäkelä, 1980). During a second Finnish strike in 1985, there was a 20 percent drop in "rowdiness at licensed entertainment events" and a 20 percent reduction in crimes of violence (Österberg and Saila).

Major social or national movements that affect alcohol consumption can also affect alcohol-related violence. During the 1980 Gdańsk shipyard strike, out of which emerged the Polish Solidarity movement, the strikers imposed a prohibition on alcohol in the shipyard. The ban was quickly picked up and extended by the local government throughout the province, and temporary alcohol bans became a frequent symbolic gesture by both the Polish government and Solidarity as a signal of serious intent and yet a desire to avoid violence (Moskalewicz). Although drinking per se was not banned, a local survey showed that most residents did not drink at all during the prohibition, and that 84 percent of the respondents thought that the prohibition had reduced the number of violent incidents. According to the authorities, "a drop in the number of crimes was noted, although the militia activity in the town was reduced to a minimum" (p. 378). The local ambulance service reported an unusually quiet time (Bielewicz and Moskalewicz).

The drop in crime in Gdańsk may have resulted not only from the ban on alcohol sales but from an increased sense of common purpose, such as has been noted in grave times elsewhere to produce perturbations in social statistics. Gustav Aschaffenburg noted the effects of such a mixture of abstinence and common purpose in nineteenth-century Ireland: "Father Matthew succeeded, by the power of his personality and his enthusiastic speeches, in making total abstainers of 1,800,000 persons in the course of a few years. The result was that, whereas, in 1828, 12,000 serious crimes were committed in Ireland, in 1841 the number had sunk to 773, the sixteenth part!" Aschaffenburg added, however, that "[t]he slight permanence of this unexampled success proves, it is true, that the method employed was not the right one" (p. 129).

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