Despite a widely held belief that alcohol use should negatively impact wages, much of the literature on the topic suggests a positive relationship between nonproblematic alcohol use and wages. Studies on the effect of alcohol use on educational attainment have also failed to find a consistent, negative effect of alcohol use on years of education. Thus, the connections between alcohol use, human capital, and wages remain a topic of debate in the literature. In this study, we use the 1997 cohort of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to estimate a theoretical model of wage determination that links alcohol use to wages via human capital. We find that nonbinge drinking is associated with lower wage returns to education whereas binge drinking is associated with increased wage returns to both education and work experience. We interpret these counterintuitive results as evidence that alcohol use affects wages through both the allocative and productive efficiency of human capital formation and that these effects operate in offsetting directions. We suggest that alcohol control policies should be more nuanced to target alcohol consumption in the contexts within which it causes harm.
Alcohol use and the wage returns to education and work experience