Some sobering news about the economics of alcohol: The top 10% of drinkers in this country account for more than half of all alcohol consumed in a year. “If the top decile somehow could be induced to curb their consumption level to that of the next lower group (the ninth decile), then total ethanol sales would fall by 60 percent,” writes Philip Cook in his recently published book Paying the Tab.

The Washington Post‘s Wonkblog has illustrated weekly alcohol consumption among American adults with the above chart. As you can see, it’s a pretty steep climb when you get to the heaviest drinkers.

According to the chart, “30 percent of American adults don’t drink at all. Another 30 percent consume, on average, less than one drink per week.”

Photo: Wonkblog

“On the other hand,” the chart continues, “the top 10 percent of American adults—24 million of them—consume an average of 74 drinks per week, or a little more than 10 drinks per day.”

Photo: Wonkblog

What we’re talking about here, obviously, is alcoholism. But the massive difference in the volume of alcohol consumed by this top tier versus everyone else is startling. Wonkblog puts it in perspective this way: If you drink a glass of wine with dinner every night you’re in the top 30% of per-capita booze consumption. If you have two glasses of wine with dinner every night, you’re in the top 20%. But to be in the top 10% you’d have to drink more than two bottles of wine every night, since the average in that decile is a staggering 18 bottles per week.

Photo: CDC

Information from the CDC about the costs of excessive drinking

Gawker points out that these drinkers represent the majority of the alcoholic beverage industry’s business, which means booze companies are hugely incentivized to encourage alcoholism and to discourage recovery from it. “Big Tobacco has been slammed for decades because of a similar dynamic in their industry, but Big Booze seems to have escaped somehow.” This is despite the fact that 1 in 10 deaths among working age adults is alcohol related, according to the CDC.

Photo: CDC

Alcohol abuse is a widespread and serious problem, but as Prohibition taught us, legislating around it is complex. In his book, Cook points out that policy makers would do well to recognize that supply is part of the problem, and the good news that’s a factor that they can control. “Beer and liquor are far cheaper and more readily available today than in the 1950s and 1960s,” reads the flyer on Paying the Tab. “Alcohol is too cheap, and it’s costing all of us.”

[via Gawker]