Share this article

print logo

More attention must be paid to alcohol’s mounting, and largely hidden, death toll

It’s not exactly the hidden killer, since alcohol permeates Western culture. We are drenched in it. Alcohol is America’s drug of choice, and the social cost is rising.

Oddly, though, its prevalence and acceptance shields it from the kind of scrutiny that is now, appropriately, being directed to prescription painkillers and their illicit cousin, heroin. Perhaps that is because alcohol kills more slowly than narcotics, but the fact is that it kills nonetheless, and the death rate has climbed over the past 13 years.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 30,700 Americans died last year from alcohol-induced causes, including alcohol poisoning and cirrhosis. That’s a rate of 9.6 deaths per 100,000 people, an increase of 37 percent – more than one-third – since 2002. That’s more deaths than those associated with overdoses of painkillers and heroin combined, which totaled 28,647.

Among those victims of alcohol was 18-year-old Nolan M. Burch of Amherst. The freshman at West Virginia University died last year after a hazing ritual in which he drank enough liquor to produce a blood-alcohol content of .493 percent, about six times New York’s statutory level of intoxication, .08 percent. Such is the place that alcohol occupies in America.

What is more, those deaths don’t include fatalities caused by drunken driving, other accidents and homicides under the influence of alcohol. When they are factored in, the number of deaths would be closer to 90,000, according to the CDC. In any other public health context, that would qualify as some kind of crisis, yet alcohol is so infused in American society that its consequences are all but invisible.

The evidence of the terrible impact alcohol has on many users can be seen outside any meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. The parking lots are packed, and that represents only those who acknowledge their problem with alcohol, not the many others who also belong there.

The question is what to do about this. We already know that prohibition doesn’t work and, what is more, we do know that moderate alcohol consumption can provide health benefits.

We also know that teenagers are especially prone to peer pressure to take that first drink, and that people who consume that first sip at age 15 or 14 or even younger don’t know – or, for that matter, even consider – what path they have chosen. But they have chosen.

With binge drinking on the rise, especially among women, it is clear that this is a social issue that requires more attention. That includes public education, in schools and elsewhere, aimed at a broad population. It means that parents have to educate their children about alcohol as well as other drugs, and to be aware of the example they are setting for their children.

We know how to do this. Cigarette use has gone down among youths. And despite the problem of drunks on the road, even that scourge is better than it was decades ago, when driving while intoxicated was treated with about the same indifference as jaywalking. We can make a difference.

Alcohol use, and abuse, will be especially prevalent this week as the holidays reach their culmination on New Year’s Eve. That makes it a good time to watch out for those who can be among the victims of alcohol poisoning and accidents.

Be aware of who is offering free rides to drinkers Thursday night. Ensure that drinkers have a safe place to stay. Party hosts should collect car keys of intoxicated friends.

It’s as good a place as any to start giving this mounting problem the attention that something so pervasive and so deadly deserves.