US alcohol-related death toll is growing

Excessive drinking is associated with health problems such as liver cancer, high blood pressure, strokes and heart disease

More government data points to alcohol's increasing role in US deaths. AP
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The rate of deaths that can be directly attributed to alcohol rose nearly 30 per cent in the US after the Covid-19 pandemic, according to new government data.

The details were contained in two reports from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention this week.

“Alcohol is often overlooked” as a public health problem, said Marissa Esser, who leads the CDC’s alcohol programme. “But it is a leading preventable cause of death.”

A report released on Friday focused on more than a dozen kinds of “alcohol-induced” deaths that were wholly blamed on drinking. Examples include alcohol-caused liver or pancreas failure, alcohol poisoning, withdrawal and certain other diseases. There were more than 52,000 such deaths last year, up from 39,000 in 2019.

The rate of such deaths had been increasing in the two decades before the pandemic, by 7 per cent or less each year.

In 2020, they rose 26 per cent, to about 13 deaths per 100,000 Americans. That’s the highest rate recorded in at least 40 years, said the study’s lead author, Merianne Spencer.

Such deaths are 2 1/2 times more common in men than in women, but rose for both in 2020, the study found. The rate continued to be highest for people aged 55 to 64, but rose dramatically for certain other groups, including jumping 42 per cent among women aged 35 to 44.

The second report, published earlier this week in JAMA Network Open, looked at a wider range of deaths that could be linked to drinking, such as motor vehicle accidents, suicides, falls and cancers.

More than 140,000 of that broader category of alcohol-related deaths occur annually, based on data from 2015 to 2019, the researchers said. CDC researchers say about 82,000 of those deaths are from drinking too much over a long period of time and 58,000 from causes tied to acute intoxication.

The study found that as many as one in eight deaths among US adults aged 20 to 64 were alcohol-related deaths. New Mexico was the state with the highest percentage of alcohol-related deaths, at 22 per cent. Mississippi had the lowest, at 9 per cent.

Excessive drinking is associated with chronic dangers such as liver cancer, high blood pressure, strokes and heart disease. Drinking by pregnant women can lead to miscarriages, stillbirth or birth defects. And health officials say alcohol is a factor in as many as one-third of serious falls among the elderly.

It’s also a risk to others through drunken driving or alcohol-fuelled violence. Surveys suggest that more than half the alcohol sold in the US is consumed during binge drinking episodes.

Even before the pandemic, US alcohol consumption was trending up, and Americans were drinking more than when Prohibition was enacted. But deaths may have increased since the Covid-19 pandemic began for several reasons, including people with alcohol-related illnesses may have had more trouble getting medical care, Ms Esser said.

She added that the research points to a need to look at steps to reduce alcohol consumption, including increasing alcohol taxes and enacting measures that limit where people can buy beer, wine and liquor.

Updated: November 04, 2022, 1:44 PM