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Americans drinking themselves to death at an ever-spiraling rate

WASHINGTON – Alcohol is killing Americans at a rate not seen in at least 35 years, according to new federal data. Last year, more than 30,700 Americans died from alcohol-induced causes, including alcohol poisoning and cirrhosis, which is primarily caused by alcohol use.

In 2014, there were 9.6 deaths from these alcohol-induced causes per 100,000 people, an increase of 37 percent since 2002.

This tally of alcohol-induced fatalities excludes deaths from drunken driving, other accidents and homicides committed under the influence of alcohol.

If those numbers were included, the annual toll of deaths directly or indirectly caused by alcohol would be closer to 90,000, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In recent years, public health experts have focused extensively on overdose deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers, which have risen rapidly since the early 2000s. But in 2014, according to the CDC, more people died from alcohol-induced causes – 30,722 – than from overdoses of prescription painkillers and heroin combined, which totaled 28,647.

Philip J. Cook, a Duke University professor who studies alcohol consumption patterns and their effects, notes that per-capita alcohol consumption has been increasing since the late 1990s.

“Since the prevalence of heavy drinking tends to follow closely with per-capita consumption, it is likely that one explanation for the growth in alcohol-related deaths is that more people are drinking more,” he wrote in an email.

The number of American adults who drink at least monthly rose by a small but significant amount between 2002 and 2014 – from 54.9 percent to 56.9 percent – according to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The change has been especially pronounced among women. The percent of women drinking monthly or more rose to 51.9 in 2014, from 47.9 in 2002. And the percentage of women reporting binge drinking – defined as five or more drinks on at least one occasion – rose to 17.4 percent, from 15.7 percent, over the same period.

Cook notes that when you adjust the alcohol fatality rates for age, the increase narrows somewhat. That’s because older Americans are at more risk for alcohol-induced diseases, like cirrhosis, and the American population has gotten older over the past several decades.

Once you adjust for age, the increase in alcohol-related deaths “could plausibly be accounted for by the growth in per-capita consumption,” Cook said.

The heaviest drinkers are at the greatest risk for alcohol-induced causes of mortality. And some drinkers consume plenty of alcohol indeed. Prior research by Cook indicates that the top 10 percent of American adults consume the lion’s share of alcohol in this country – on average, nearly 74 drinks a week.

For people who drink less, alcohol’s effects on health are less clear-cut. A large body of research seems to indicate that moderate alcohol consumption – around a drink or two a day – is associated with decreased risk of mortality.

But with alcohol, the line between “moderate use” and “dangerous use” can be a thin one.

A recent study quantified the risk of death associated with the use of a variety of common recreational drugs. They found that at the level of individual use, alcohol was the deadliest substance, followed by heroin and cocaine.

The reason? With alcohol, the margin between a toxic dose and a typical dose is extremely narrow. If you’re happily buzzed at say, three drinks, three more might make you sick, and three after that may put you in the territory of alcohol poisoning.

For this reason, some researchers are starting to urge public health officials to focus more on the dangers posed by alcohol, and less on the dangers of less toxic drugs, such as marijuana and LSD. One way to rein in problem drinking would be to simply raise federal alcohol taxes, which are currently at historically low levels.

And the problem is not confined to the United States.

The BBC reported Tuesday that hospital visits for alcohol poisoning have doubled in six years in Britain, with the highest rate among females ages 15 to 19.

Citing a report from the Nuffield Trust, the BBC said emergency admissions due to the effects of alcohol, such as liver disease, have also risen by more than 50 percent in nine years to 250,000 a year in England.

Rates were highest in impoverished areas and in the north, and among men aged 45-64, the Nuffield Trust revealed.

The Nuffield Trust said their figures were actually an underestimate of the impact of drinking because they did not include alcohol-fueled falls and fights, just illnesses such as alcohol poisoning and liver disease. Nor do they count people who come to the hospital drunk and are sent home without being treated or admitted.