Let’s Not Forget Alcohol

Excessive alcohol use results in 88,000 deaths per year in the US and makes an enormous contribution to injuries and diverse physical and mental illnesses.

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The situation is serious.

Communities across the United States are striving to combat opioid use disorder. They can’t ignore the 47,000 opioid overdose deaths per year, which have lowered overall life expectancy and boosted the number of children in need of foster care. These same communities, however, are less motivated to combat alcohol use and addiction, perhaps because measures of harm related to alcohol are not spiking—yet.

This is no time to be complacent about alcohol. Excessive alcohol use results in 88,000 deaths per year in the US and makes an enormous contribution to injuries and diverse physical and mental illnesses. The situation is serious already. Plus, excessive drinking among several subgroups is increasing so that, if nothing changes, multiple measures of harm related to alcohol are likely to rise.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) views excessive drinking as including “binge drinking, heavy drinking, and any drinking by pregnant women or people younger than age 21.” Binge drinking for women is defined as consuming 4 or more drinks during a single occasion; for men, 5 or more drinks during a single occasion. Heavy drinking for women is defined as consuming 8 or more drinks per week; for men, 15 or more drinks per week.

Recent epidemiologic surveys have detected increases in alcohol use, high-risk drinking, and alcohol use disorders in the US population, particularly among “women, older adults, racial/ethnic minorities, and the socioeconomically disadvantaged.” Unless communities intervene and specifically address those subgroups when possible, spikes in the incidence of alcohol-related health problems may just be a matter of time.

Underage drinking warrants additional community attention right now. The CDC reports that excessive drinking among youths causes more than 4,300 deaths per year and that people ages 12 to 20 drink 11 percent of all the beverage alcohol consumed in the US. Excessive drinking among youths contributes to unwanted sexual activity. College students sometimes combine restricted food intake with binge drinking in a dangerous practice called “drunkorexia.”

Since 1987, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (now Facing Addiction with NCADD) has designated April as Alcohol Awareness Month. Some communities invite everyone to abstain from alcohol for specific days in April, or even the entire month.

Is your use of alcohol excessive? Take this quiz to find out. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism also offers tools that can help you think about alcohol and your health.

Geoffrey P. Kane, MD, MPH is Chief of Addiction Services at the Brattleboro Retreat, a 184-year-old psychiatric and addiction treatment hospital in southeastern Vermont. A graduate of Boston College, Yale School of Medicine, and Yale School of Public Health, he trained in internal medicine and social medicine at Montefiore Medical Center. Dr. Kane is certified by the American Boards of Internal Medicine and Addiction Medicine and is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (DFASAM).

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