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Alcohol and Crime: Behavioral Aspects - Interpreting Population-level Studies

changes drinking countries effects

Comparing rates of drinking and of crime across different countries or cultures provides only a weak demonstration of associations between the two. As Klaus Mäkelä notes, "cultural variations in drinking patterns are based on lasting historical traditions, and they may well be resistant to a certain degree to changes in the level of consumption. To take a somewhat extreme example, we have no reason to believe that the French would start drunken fights should they lower their consumption to the same level as the Scots or the Finns" (Mäkelä, p. 333). Studies of alcohol and crime are done mostly in societies that worry a lot about alcohol (Scandinavia, English-speaking countries) and that combine histories of explosive drunkenness with histories of strong temperance sentiments. Links between alcohol and crime may be weaker in other countries (for example, southern Europe) with different drinking customs.

Changes in policies that increase or decrease alcohol availability can result in changes in alcohol-related violence; however, examples of major changes in policy are rare (Graham, Schmidt, and Gillis). The effects of these changes have usually been studied in countries that have a government monopoly on alcohol distribution and a work force that is sufficiently unionized for a strike to have a significant impact on the availability of alcohol. Because strikes cause only short-term supply interruptions, longer-term effects are difficult to predict. When policies are changed permanently, it is difficult to disentangle the alcohol effects from the social motivations that gave rise to the policy in the first place (Pernanen, 1993).

Interpretation of population-level studies is also complicated by the fact that these studies cannot link individual criminal behavior to individual consumption and thus cannot directly address the question of whether individuals who consume alcohol are more likely to behave violently (Hennekens and Buring; Lipsey et al.). For example, as Pernanen and others have noted, when the supply of alcohol is cut down, the frequency of social interaction is also reduced, with a resulting decrease in the probability of interaction and, consequently, interpersonal crime. Changes in availability may lead to crime by making victims more vulnerable, attracting offenders and victims to high-risk environments, or affecting the frequency of male gatherings (Lipsey et al.). That is, it may not be drinking per se that reduces or increases levels of crime, but the effect may be through other factors that are influenced by the change in drinking.

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