Study: Malt liquor could be factor in higher murder rates

Principle investigator Rhonda Jones-Webb is quick to point out that her team's findings do not prove that the availability of higher malt liquor causes higher homicide rates in African American communities. Actual alcohol consumption would need to be monitored before investigators could draw that conclusion, she says.

Her findings suggest there could be an indirect link to violent crime.

"It may be that the availability influences consumption of these products which in turn influences homicide rates," she says.

Other studies have linked consumption of malt beverages with heavier drinking and aggressive behavior.

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While her study did not track consumption rates, Jones-Webb says, her team did drive to every liquor retailer in the neighborhoods it studied to count the number of malt beverages on store shelves and observe how they were being marketed.

"For example we found greater numbers of 40 oz. bottles of malt liquor and more malt liquor ads on the store fronts."

Malt liquor is often packaged in 40 oz. bottles that are sold cold directly from a retailer's cooler. That makes immediate consumption much easier, Jones-Webb says. Typically the lager beer contains 6 to 8-and-a-half percent alcohol by volume, compared to 4 to 5-percent for standard beer. And it's cheap. The U of M study found that the average price of a 40 oz.bottle is $1.87 in the neighborhoods it studied. That's significantly less than a gallon of milk.

Those prices were often plastered prominently across liquor store fronts - a practice she says should trouble the black community, Jones-Webb says.

"So it begs the question why is this so? Why are these products being sold and promoted in certain neighborhoods and not in others?"

The study authors make some good points, according to Jim Farrell, Executive Director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association. There are legitimate concerns about the way malt beverages are marketed to African Americans, he says.

"When I see a rap video with Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre and they're opening up a refrigerator and it shows the cold 40's, I mean, I understand that and I understand when people say that that will have an impact possibly on behavior."

But linking malt beverages to homicide rates seems a stretch, Farrell says.

"I don't know if we should make the leap that says that if you market a specific type of alcohol it may be a factor in leading to homicide."

Many other factors could be at play from gang violence to the availability of guns, he says.

Jones-Webb acknowledges the limitations in her study. She hopes to address some of them in future research. Her findings are published the Journal of Substance Use and Misuse.