Thesis Thursday: Luke Wilson

On the third Thursday of every month, we speak to a recent graduate about their thesis and their studies. This month’s guest is Dr Luke Wilson who has a PhD from Lancaster University. If you would like to suggest a candidate for an upcoming Thesis Thursday, get in touch.

Title
Essays on the economics of alcohol and risky behaviours
Supervisors
Colin P. Green, Bruce Hollingsworth, Céu Caixeiro Mateus
Repository link
https://doi.org/10.17635/lancaster/thesis/636

What inspired your research and how did ‘attractiveness’ enter the picture?

Without trying to sound like I have a problem, I find the subject of alcohol fascinating. The history of it, how it is perceived in society, how our behaviours around it have changed over time, not to mention it tastes pretty damn good!

Our attitude to alcohol is fascinating and diverse. Over 6.5 million people have visited Munich in the last month alone to attend the world’s largest beer festival Oktoberfest, drinking more than 7.3 million litres of beer. However, 2020 will be the 100-year anniversary of the introduction of prohibition in the United States. Throughout history, alcohol consumption has been portrayed as both a positive and negative commodity in society.

For my thesis, I wanted to understand individuals’ current attitudes to drinking alcohol; whether they are affected by legal restrictions such as being constrained by the minimum legal drinking age of 18 in the UK, whether their attitudes have changed over their life course, and how alcohol fits among a wider variety of risky behaviours such as smoking and illicit drug use.

As for how did ‘attractiveness’ enter the picture, I was searching for datasets that allow for longitudinal analysis, as well as contain information on risky behaviours, and I stumbled upon the data that asked the interviewers to rate the attractiveness of the respondent. My first thought was what a barbaric question to ask, but I quickly realised that the question is used a lot in determining the ‘beauty premia’ in the labour market. However, nobody has examined how these ‘beauty premia’ might come into effect while still at school.

Are people perceived to be more attractive at an advantage or a disadvantage in this context?

The current literature provides a compelling view that there are sizeable labour market returns to attractiveness in the United States (Fletcher, 2009; Stinebrickener et al., 2019). What is not well understood, and where our research fits in, is how physical attractiveness influences earlier, consequential, decisions. The previous literature seeks to provide, in essence, the effect of attractiveness on labour market outcomes conditional on individual characteristics, both demographic and ‘pre-market’. However, attractiveness is also likely to change both the opportunities and costs of a variety of behaviours during adolescence.

Exploiting the interviewer variations in ratings of attractiveness, we found that attractiveness of adolescents has marked effects on a range of risky behaviours. For instance, more attractive teens are less likely to smoke than teens of average or than lower attractiveness teens. However, attractiveness is associated with higher teen alcohol consumption. Attractive females, in particular, are substantially more likely to have consumed alcohol in the past twelve months, than those of or below average attractiveness.

How did you model the role of the minimum legal drinking age in the UK?

I was highly unoriginal and estimated the effect of the minimum legal drinking age in the UK using a regression discontinuity design approach, like that of Carpenter and Dobkin (2009). I jest but it is one of the most effective ways to estimate a causal effect of a particular law/policy that is triggered by age, especially for the UK which has not changed its legal drinking age.

Where our research deviates is that we focus on the law itself and analyse how an individual’s consumption of alcohol in a particular school year may differ at the cut-off (aged 18). For example, do those born in September purchase alcohol for themselves and their younger friends or do we all adhere to the laws that govern us and wait patiently…

Are younger people drinking less, nowadays?

The short answer is yes! Evidence from multiple British surveys shows a consistent pattern over 10-15 years of reduced participation in drinking, reduced consumption levels among drinkers, reduced prevalence of drunkenness, and less positive attitudes towards alcohol in young adults aged 16 to 24.

Friends of mine at the University of Sheffield (Oldham et al., 2018) have sought to unravel the decline in youth drinking further and find evidence that younger drinkers are consuming alcohol less often and in smaller quantities. They find that, among those who were drinkers, the percentage of 16-24 year-olds who drank in the last week fell from 76% to 60% between 2002 and 2016, while for 11-15 year-olds it fell from 35% to 19%. Additionally, alongside declines in youth drinking, the proportion of young adults who had ever tried smoking fell from 43% in 1998 to 17% in 2016.

While we are witnessing this decline, the jury is still out as to why it is happening. Explanations so far include that increases in internet use (social media) and online gaming are changing the way young people spend their leisure time. Additionally, economic factors may play a role, such as the increase in the cost of alcohol, as well as the increase in tuition fees and housing costs meaning that young adults have less disposable income.

What were some of the key methodological challenges you faced in your research?

The largest methodological problem I faced throughout my PhD was finding suitable data to examine the effect of the minimum legal drinking age in the setting of the UK. One of the key underlying components in a regression discontinuity design is the running variable. The running variable I use is age in months of the respondents, which is calculated using the date in which the survey interview took place as well as the month and year of birth of the respondent. Unfortunately, due to issues with data being disclosive, it is very difficult to obtain data that have these variables as well as suitable questions regarding alcohol consumption. Luckily, the General Household Survey (Special Licence version) had the variables I needed to conduct the analysis, albeit only between 1998 and 2007.

How might your research inform policymakers seeking to discourage risky behaviours?

Definitely a difficult question to answer, especially given that one of my chapters uses interviewer variations in ratings of attractiveness of the respondents, so I have stayed well clear from drawing individual policy recommendations from that chapter. That said, these results are important for a number of interrelated reasons. Previous labour market research demonstrates marked effects of attractiveness. My results suggest that important pre-market effects of attractiveness on individual behaviour are likely to be consequential for both labour market performance and important pre-market investments. In this sense, the findings suggest that physical attractiveness provides another avenue for understanding non-cognitive traits that are important in child and adolescent development and carry lifetime consequences.

The chapter on the minimum legal drinking age provides intriguing results regarding the effectiveness of policies that impose limits on ‘consumption’ through age-restrictive policies; whether they are enough on their own or merely delay consumption. This is especially relevant given that there is currently a discussion about increasing the minimum legal tobacco purchasing age to 21 and increasing the age in which you can buy a national lottery ticket from age 16 to 18 in the UK.

Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 30th October 2017

Every Monday our authors provide a round-up of some of the most recently published peer reviewed articles from the field. We don’t cover everything, or even what’s most important – just a few papers that have interested the author. Visit our Resources page for links to more journals or follow the HealthEconBot. If you’d like to write one of our weekly journal round-ups, get in touch.

Conditional cash transfers: the case of Progresa/OportunidadesJournal of Economic Literature [RePEc] Published September 2017

The Progresa/Oportunidades programme was instigated in Mexico in 1995. The main innovation of the programme was a series of cash payments conditional on various human capital investments in children, such as regular school attendance and health check-ups. Beginning principally in rural areas, it expanded to urban areas in 2000-1. Excitingly for researchers, randomised implementation of the programme was built into its rollout, permitting evaluation of its effectiveness. Given it was the first such programme in a low- or middle-income country to do this, there has been a considerable amount of analysis and literature published on the topic. This article provides an in-depth review of this literature – incorporating over one hundred articles from economics and health journals. I’ll just focus on the health-related aspects of the review rather than education, labour market, or nutrition outcomes, but they’re also worth a look. The article provides a simple theoretical model about the effects of conditional cash transfers to start with and suggests that they have both a price effect, through reducing the shadow wage of time in activities other than those to which the payment is targeted, and an income effect, by increasing total income. The latter effect is ambiguous in its direction. For health, a large number of outcomes including child mortality and height, behavioural problems, obesity, and depression have all been assessed. For the most part  this has been through health modules applied to a subsample of people in surveys, which may limit the conclusions one can make for reasons such as attrition in the samples of treated and control households. Generally, the programme has demonstrated positive health effects (of varying magnitudes) in both the short and medium terms. Health care utilisation increased and with it there was a reduction in self-reported illness, behavioural problems, and obesity. However, positive effects are not reported universally. For example, one study reported an increase in child height in the short term, but in the medium term little change was reported in height-for-age z-scores in another study, which may suggest children catch-up in their growth. Nevertheless, it seems as though the programme succeeded in its aims, although there remains the question of its cost-benefit ratio and whether these ends could have been achieved more cost-effectively by other means. There is also the political question about the paternalism of the programme. While some political issues are covered, such as the perception of the programme as a vehicle for buying votes, and strategies for mitigating these issues, the issue of its acceptability to poor Mexicans is not well covered.

Health‐care quality and information failure: evidence from Nigeria. Health Economics [PubMedPublished 23rd October 2017

When we conceive of health care quality we often think of preventable harm to patients. Higher quality institutions make fewer errors such as incorrect diagnoses, mistakes with medication, or surgical gaffes. However, determining when an error has been made is difficult and quality is often poorly correlated with typical measures of performance like standardised mortality ratios. Evaluating quality is harder still in resource-poor settings where there are no routine data for evaluation and often an absence of patient records. Patients may also have less knowledge about what constitutes quality care. This may provide an environment for low-quality providers to remain in business as patients do not discriminate on the basis of quality. Patient satisfaction is another important aspect of quality, but not necessarily related to more ‘technical’ aspects of quality. For example, a patient may feel that they’ve not had to wait long and been treated respectfully even if they have been, unbeknownst to them, misdiagnosed and given the wrong medication. This article looks at data from Nigeria to examine whether measures of patient satisfaction are correlated with technical quality such as diagnostic accuracy and medicines availability. In brief, they report that there is little variation in patient satisfaction reports, which may be due to some reporting bias, and that diagnostic accuracy was correlated with satisfaction but other markers of quality were not. Importantly though, the measures of technical quality did little to explain the overall variation in patient satisfaction.

State intimate partner violence-related firearm laws and intimate partner homicide rates in the United States, 1991 to 2015. Annals of Internal Medicine [PubMedPublished 17th October 2017

Gun violence in the United States is a major health issue. Other major causes of death and injury attract significant financial investment and policy responses. However, the political nature of firearms in the US limit any such response. Indeed, a 1996 law passed by Congress forbade the CDC “to advocate or promote gun control”, which a succession of CDC directors has interpreted as meaning no federally funded research into gun violence at all. As such, for such a serious cause of death and disability, there is disproportionately little research. This article (not federally funded, of course) examines the impact of gun control legislation on inter-partner violence (IPV). Given the large proportion of inter-partner homicides (IPH) carried out with a gun, persons convicted of IPV felonies and, since 1996, misdemeanours are prohibited from possessing a firearm. However, there is variation in states about whether those convicted of an IPV crime have to surrender a weapon already in their possession. This article examines whether states that enacted ‘relinquishment’ laws that force IPV criminals to surrender their weapons reduced the rate of IPHs. They use state-level panel data and a negative binomial fixed effects model and find that relinquishment laws reduced the risk of IPHs by around 10% and firearm-related IPH by around 15%.

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Sam Watson’s journal round-up for 23rd January 2017

Every Monday our authors provide a round-up of some of the most recently published peer reviewed articles from the field. We don’t cover everything, or even what’s most important – just a few papers that have interested the author. Visit our Resources page for links to more journals or follow the HealthEconBot. If you’d like to write one of our weekly journal round-ups, get in touch.

Short-term and long-term effects of GDP on traffic deaths in 18 OECD countries, 1960–2011. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health [PubMedPublished February 2017

Understanding the relationships between different aspects of the economy or society in the aggregate can reveal to us knowledge about the world. However, they are more complicated than analyses of individuals who either did or did not receive an intervention, as the objects of aggregate analyses don’t ‘exist’ per se but are rather descriptions of average behaviour of the system. To make sense of these analyses an understanding of the system is therefore required. On these grounds I am a little unsure of the results of this paper, which estimates the effect of GDP on road traffic fatalities in OECD countries over time. It is noted that previous studies have shown that in the short-run, road traffic deaths are procyclical, but in the long-run they have declined, likely as a result of improved road and car safety. Indeed, this is what they find with their data and models. But, what does this result mean in the long-run? Have they picked up anything more than a correlation with time? Time is not included in the otherwise carefully specified models, so is the conclusion to policy makers, ‘just keep doing what you’re doing, whatever that is…’? Models of aggregate phenomena can be among the most interesting, but also among the least convincing (my own included!). That being said, this is better than most.

Sources of geographic variation in health care: Evidence from patient migration. Quarterly Journal of Economics [RePEcPublished November 2016

There are large geographic differences in health care utilisation both between countries and within countries. In the US, for example, the average Medicare enrollee spent around $14,400 in 2010 in Miami, Florida compared with around $7,800 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, even after adjusting for demographic differences. However, higher health care spending is generally not associated with better health outcomes. There is therefore an incentive for policy makers to legislate to reduce this disparity, but what will be effective depends on the causes of the variation. On one side, doctors may be dispensing treatments differently; for example, we previously featured a paper looking at the variation in overuse of medical testing by doctors. On the other side, patients may be sicker or have differing preferences on the intensity of their treatment. To try and distinguish between these two possible sources of variation, this paper uses geographical migration to look at utilisation among people who move from one area to another. They find that (a very specific) 47% of the difference in use of health care is attributable to patient characteristics. However, I (as ever) remain skeptical: a previous post brought up the challenge of ‘transformative treatments’, which may apply here as this paper has to rely on the assumption that patient preferences remain the same when they move. If moving from one city to another changes your preferences over healthcare, then their identification strategy no longer works well.

Seeing beyond 2020: an economic evaluation of contemporary and emerging strategies for elimination of Trypanosoma brucei gambiense. Lancet Global Health Published November 2016

African sleeping sickness, or Human African trypanosomiasis, is targeted for eradication in the next decade. However, the strategy to do so has not been determined, nor whether any such strategy would be a cost-effective use of resources. This paper aims to model all of these different strategies to estimate incremental cost-effectiveness threshold (ICERs). Infectious disease presents an interesting challenge for health economic evaluation as the disease transmission dynamics need to be captured over time, which they achieve here with a ‘standard’ epidemiological model using ordinary differential equations. To reach elimination targets, an approach incorporating case detection, treatment, and vector control would be required, they find.

A conceptual introduction to Hamiltonian Monte Carlo. ArXiv Published 10th January 2017

It is certainly possible to drive a car without understanding how the engine works. But if we want to get more out of the car or modify its components then we will have to start learning some mechanics. The same is true of statistical software. We can knock out a simple logistic regression without ever really knowing the theory or what the computer is doing. But this ‘black box’ approach to statistics has clear problems. How do we know the numbers on the screen mean what we think they mean? What if it doesn’t work or if it is running slowly, how do we diagnose the problem? Programs for Bayesian inference can sometimes seem even more opaque than others: one might well ask what are those chains actually exploring, if it’s even the distribution of interest. Well, over the last few years a new piece of kit, Stan, has become a brilliant and popular tool for Bayesian inference. It achieves fast convergence with less autocorrelation between chains and so it achieves a high effective sample size for relatively few iterations. This is due to its implementation of Hamiltonian Monte Carlo. But it’s founded in the mathematics of differential geometry, which has restricted the understanding of how it works to a limited few. This paper provides an excellent account of Hamiltonian Monte Carlo, how it works, and when it fails, all replete with figures. While it’s not necessary to become a theoretical or computational statistician, it is important, I think, to have a grasp of what the engine is doing if we’re going to play around with it.

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