Science

Death toll from alcohol on the rise, says US government report

NEW YORK – The rate of deaths directly attributable to alcohol in the US rose nearly 30% during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new government data.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had already said that the total number of such deaths increased in 2020 and 2021. Two CDC reports this week provided further details about which groups have the highest death rates and which states are seeing the highest numbers.

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

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

The rate of such deaths was increasing by 7% or less every year in the two decades before the pandemic.

In 2020, they rose 26% to about 13 deaths per 100,000 Americans. This is the highest rate recorded in at least 40 years, said study lead author Marion Spencer.

Such deaths are 2 1/2 times more common in men than in women, but both increased in 2020, the study found. The rate remained highest for those aged 55 to 64, but rose dramatically for some other groups, including a 42% jump among women ages 35 to 44.

The second report, published earlier this week in JAMA Network Open, looked at a wide range of deaths, such as motor vehicle crashes, suicides, falls and cancer, that can be linked to drinking.

Based on data from 2015 to 2019, more than 140,000 of that broad range of alcohol-related deaths occur annually, the researchers said. CDC researchers say that about 82,000 of those deaths are caused by long-term drinking, and 58,000 are from causes associated with acute intoxication.

The study found that 1 in 8 deaths among American adults aged 20 to 64 was an alcohol-related death. New Mexico was the state with the highest percentage of alcohol-related deaths at 22%. Mississippi had the lowest, 9%

Excessive drinking leads to chronic risks such as liver cancer, high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. Drinking alcohol by pregnant women can cause miscarriage, stillbirth or birth defects. And health officials say alcohol is a factor in a third of severe falls in the elderly.

It is also a danger to others from drunk driving or alcohol-caused violence. Surveys show that more than half of all alcohol sold in the US is consumed during episodes of binge drinking.

Even before the pandemic, American alcohol consumption was on the rise, and Americans were drinking more than before the prohibition was in force. But deaths may have increased since the COVID-19 pandemic began for a number of reasons, including those with alcohol-related illnesses that may have more trouble getting medical care, Esser said.

He said the research points to the need to look at steps to reduce alcohol consumption, including increasing the alcohol tax and putting in place measures where people can buy beer, wine and liquor.

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