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Alcohol-related deaths in U.S. jumped 29 percent in 5 years. Here’s why, according to experts

Alcohol-related deaths in U.S. jumped 29 percent in 5 years. Here’s why, according to experts

Source: https://www.pbs.org/

March 3, 2024

In the United States, deaths tied to excessive alcohol use rose 29 percent in just five years, according to federal data out this week, an increase that has alarmed experts and devastated many people who have lost loved ones.

A study published this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated an annual average of nearly 138,000 people dying from alcohol-related causes, such as motor vehicle crashes, alcohol poisoning, cancer and cirrhosis, based on data from 2016 to 2017. By 2020 to 2021, alcohol contributed to more than 178,000 U.S. deaths per year on average, the report said.

The study was based on data from the CDC’s Alcohol-Related Disease Impact application, which assesses 58 conditions linked to alcohol consumption that the public health agency has examined for two decades, said Marissa Esser, the study’s lead author.

While several factors led to this dramatic increase, “the main one was most likely the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University. A combination of stress, tremendous loss of life due to the virus and isolation from friends and family contributed to mental health struggles that compelled many people to self-medicate with alcohol, Siegel said.

During the pandemic, alcohol also became easier to purchase. The rise of home delivery services for alcohol enabled people to avoid stepping outside and possibly getting sick, but also further isolated them, Siegel said. Other policy changes, like permitting alcohol to be carried in to-go cups, posed “a risk factor for excessive alcohol use,” Esser said.

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This rise in alcohol-related deaths is “most likely going to hold steady,” Siegel said, unless the U.S. takes action in response to the problem. For example, research shows that raising taxes on alcohol can bring down consumption, according to both Esser and Siegel.

“We have to intervene to bring these numbers down,” Siegel said.

In addition to pandemic stress, stigma around seeking mental health services and an overburdened mental health care system have further perpetuated conditions that led to an increase in alcohol-related deaths, he said, despite the existence of proven treatments and medications.

“There is a stigma in our society that treats mental health as if there’s something wrong with you,” he said. “We wouldn’t say to someone with pneumonia, ‘Wow, you really have pneumonia. What a shame. Shame on you.’”