As cannabis becomes legalized in more states across the U.S., many researchers are trying to measure the outcome of the new laws and cultural practices. In a study upcoming in the INFORMS journal Marketing Science, a team of researchers used internet search data to evaluate the effect of marijuana legalization on both adults and youth. "Asymmetric Effects of Recreational Cannabis Legalization” found that the new laws on cannabis affected searches for alcohol and tobacco differently, and that young people had different search patterns than adults.
After legalization, online searches for alcohol fell nearly 11 percent, while tobacco products searches rose about 8 percent. These findings would seem to support an argument that cannabis legalization can reduce alcohol consumption, which could potentially benefit public health overall. While cannabis consumption can cause harm in some cases, and it’s safety and best applications are still being explored, alcohol consumption is known to exacerbate many health issues. Excessive alcohol use was responsible for 1 in 10 deaths among working-age adults between 2006 and 2010, and shortened the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of course, a myriad of health factors relating to both cannabis and alcohol are still being explored, such as related motor vehicle accident rates, the positive or detrimental impacts these substances can have on the brain and other organs, and how the varieties of their forms and potencies affect different people at different times.
Other studies exploring how cannabis laws affect alcohol consumption have had conflicting results; one carried out by an alcohol trade association in early 2019 found hard liquor sales were generally unaffected in the three states where weed has been legal the longest (Colorado, Oregon and Washington). Meanwhile, wine sales had mixed results in these states, while beer sales declined, as they have across the nation during the last decade.
Alcohol and tobacco companies typically oppose marijuana legalization. But the latest study reflecting online interest seems to suggest greater access to recreational cannabis may increase interest in tobacco (a product well-known to be extremely dangerous to health). Study co-author and assistant professor in the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia Pengyuan Wang said, "tobacco companies may need to reexamine their presumption, and [see] that anti-cannabis legalization is not to the best of their interest," according to EurekAlert.
Wang and his colleagues used anonymous data from “a leading U.S.-based web portal,” drawing on 28 million online searches and 120 million ad impressions recorded between January 2014 and April 2017.
Another interesting finding was that while adult searches for cannabis increased 17 percent after legalization, there was actually a decrease in searches by those aged 19 years and younger. Any findings related to youth and cannabis are notable, as its effects on the teenage brain are a topic of much ongoing investigation and concern.