February 25, 2020

'An urgent public health crisis': Alcohol deaths are rising

Daily Briefing

    The rate of alcohol-induced deaths in the United States increased significantly between 2000 and 2016, according to a new study published Friday in JAMA Network Open.

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    Study details

    For the study, researchers looked at deaths from illness caused by alcohol, primarily alcoholic liver disease, according to Susan Spillane, a former fellow at the U.S. National Cancer Institute's Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics and lead researcher on the study.

    "We excluded causes known to be alcohol-related but not 100% alcohol-attributable, such as road traffic accidents, alcohol-associated cancers, and infections and organ system diseases known to be associated with alcohol use," Spillane said.

    Key findings

    The researchers found that in 2000 there were 14.4 alcohol-induced deaths per 100,000 residents among men and 4.0 deaths per 100,000 residents among women. By 2016, the rates had grown to 17.9 deaths per 100,000 residents among men and 6.6 deaths per 100,000 residents among women.

    While men in the United States were still more likely to die from an alcohol-induced illness, the researchers noted that from 2000 to 2016 the death rate among women grew faster. For instance, they found deaths among women increased by 3.1% annually from 2000 to 2016 while the rate among men increased more slowly, by 1.4% annually.

    The rates have increased more steeply in recent years, the researchers found, with women seeing a 7.1% average annual increase in alcohol-induced deaths from 2013 to 2016 and men seeing a 4.2% average annual increase from 2012 to 2016.

    When looking at the type of alcohol-related illness that led to death, the researchers found alcoholic liver disease accounted for the most deaths in 2016. The study found 60% of all alcohol-related deaths in 2016 among men and 69% of all alcohol-related deaths among women. Meanwhile, deaths from alcohol poisoning or mental and behavioral disorders related to alcohol comprised 36% of all alcohol deaths among men and 28% among women.

    Here's the geographic breakdown for alcohol-induced deaths among white men:

    Here's the geographic breakdown for alcohol-induced deaths among white women:


    Experts are unsure why alcohol-induced deaths are rising, but some said the trend could be related to stress and anxiety.

    Pat Aussem, director of clinical content and development for the Center on Addiction who was not involved in the study, said, "We know that stress, anxiety, and wealth inequality are correlated with higher drinking levels, especially among women as the gender gap closes."

    Women, on average, weigh less than men, which also puts them at an increased risk of alcohol poisoning, according to the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

    Aussem added that both women and older people "are also more likely to be prescribed medications that are known to be contraindicated with the consumption of alcohol, such as benzodiazepines like Xanax and painkillers like Vicodin and Percocet."

    Alcohol is also much easier to purchase than it used to be, according to Timothy Brennan, director of the Addiction Institute of Mount Sinai West and Mount Sinai St. Luke's, who was not involved in the study. "Where one can purchase alcohol has really dramatically increased in the last few decades," he said. "Many of us grew up in towns where there might be a liquor store, but you didn't have alcohol for sale in the grocery store. Now we see a ubiquity of alcohol-purchasing opportunities."

    He added that the alcohol industry also has seen "a whole ton of innovations," with people being able to buy more than just beer, liquor, and wine. "There are all sorts of alcohol-based teas and lemonades and seltzers," Brennan said. "As consumers, we're more and more inundated with different types of alcohol and different opportunities to purchase alcohol."

    Overall, Brennan said that the study "really underlines the ongoing public health menace of alcohol use disorder and risky and dangerous drinking." He noted, "The opioid crisis has generated the most attention in the media, and certainly in Washington as well, but this study demonstrates that America has had a serious alcohol problem for decades.

    Similarly, Spillane said the findings "document an urgent public health crisis calling for concerted public health action" (Thompson, HealthDay News/UPI, 2/22; Spillane et al., JAMA Network Open, 2/21).

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