The High Toll Of Alcohol Abuse
March 7, 2020
In the U.S. the leading preventable cause of death is tobacco, and second is poor diet and physical inactivity. Care to guess what comes in third? You can’t be faulted if you guessed opioids, given the media attention. No, it’s something much more accessible, with far fewer regulatory hurdles, advertised directly to the consumer, and having a negative impact across all socioeconomic demographics: Alcohol abuse and misuse.
It should be noted that here the public health issue is not alcohol per sé. It’s also not about consuming alcohol in moderation. Rather, it concerns alcohol abuse and misuse, whether in the form of chronic, daily heavy drinking, or binge-drinking at least once a week.
A study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association identified more than 425,000 alcohol-induced deaths from 2000 to 2016. The rate of alcohol-induced deaths increased substantially among men and women in the United States from 2000 to 2016, accelerating in recent years. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that alcohol now causes 88,000 deaths each year.
And, if you add alcohol-related traffic fatalities (approximately 10,000 per year) you get to a total of over 600,000 deaths from 2000 to 2016.
In the U.S., alcohol-related problems were estimated in 2010 to cost as much as $250 billion per year. That number has probably risen since then.
Furthermore, worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates what it deems are “risks” connected to alcohol abuse cause 2.5 million deaths each year from cardiovascular and liver disease, traffic accidents, suicides, and cancer.
Yet, alcohol is not considered a public health emergency. In other words, the federal government hasn’t prioritized alcohol in the way it has illicit drugs, or prescription opioids for that matter. One might have expected that this Administration would have declared a public health emergency, in light of President Trump’s personal story about his brother Fred who died of alcoholism.
The problems related to alcohol abuse and misuse present major public health challenges. Research shows that early, preventive intervention in primary care can be effective, and a variety of treatments are available to treat alcohol dependence. However, access to quality care for alcohol misuse and alcohol-associated diseases is often lacking.
Additionally, there may be a stigma attached to seeking help for something as socially acceptable and easily accessible as alcohol. Nowhere is social acceptability and ease of access clearer than in advertising, where commercials often target a young demographic, and sometimes promote morning consumption of beer.
Public health specialists assert it’s time for a much broader national dialogue about substance misuse of all drugs, licit and illicit, and that this discussion should include alcohol. Here, experts assert that concerted public health efforts need to be centered around research on alcoholism, addiction, and abuse, as well as ways to improve access to care for alcohol use disorders, possible curbs on advertising, and targeted awareness and education campaigns.