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Alcohol: The Lesser Known Killer

Anika Swartz - Friday, May 31, 2019

In the midst of the opioid tragedy, it is important to not lose sight of another common addiction—alcohol. It is estimated that alcohol causes about 88,000 deaths annually and is the third leading preventable cause of death in the US. Because alcohol consumption is legal for those over age 21, we sometimes forget the serious consequences of alcohol abuse.

There is an opioid epidemic in the United States. The indiscriminate prescribing of opiates for pain that began in the 1990s contributed to the epidemic. This, coupled with the spread of the powerful synthetic opiate fentanyl, which is being used to lace other drugs, has resulted in a skyrocketing number of opiate overdose deaths.

Rightly, this crisis has received much attention by policy-makers and the press. Prescribing practices are now being monitored, federal and state governments are dedicating funds for prevention and treatment, and local governments and providers are implementing innovative programs. The latest Maryland data (January – September, 2018), however, indicates that the deadly trend of increasing opioid overdose deaths has yet to reverse itself.

In the midst of this tragedy, it is important to not lose sight of the other chemical killer: alcohol. It is estimated that alcohol causes about 88,000 deaths annually. It is the third leading preventable cause of death (tobacco is number one and poor diet/physical inactivity is number two). Because alcohol consumption is legal for those over age 21, we sometimes forget the serious consequences of alcohol abuse.

Alcohol-related deaths are grouped into two categories: chronic and acute. 33% of alcohol-related deaths are due to chronic diseases, such as cirrhosis, liver cancer, acute pancreatitis, and alcoholic cardiomyopathy. The remaining 67% are acute, and include motor vehicle accidents, homicide, alcohol poisoning and suicide. Many fatal non-vehicular accidents are alcohol-related, such as falls, drowning and burns.

There are things that can be done to reduce alcohol-related deaths. Raising alcohol taxes and restricting alcohol sales would both contribute to a decrease in alcohol use. Strict enforcement of Driving Under the Influence (DUI) laws also reduces alcohol use. Primary care doctors should screen their patients for alcohol abuse and connect them with treatment. Improving access to treatment is critical—an estimated 6.2% of adults have Alcohol Use Disorder, but only 6.7 percent received any treatment. Alcohol Use Disorder is defined as “a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.” Like other addictive disorders, it is treatable and long term recovery is possible. Expanded treatment resources and linkages to treatment must be in place so that more people can receive the help that they need. Only then will we be able to make an impact on the number of alcohol-related deaths.

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