The Forgotten Alcoholism Crisis

The continuing opioid epidemic in the United States keeps dominating the headlines, and justifiably so. Every year, drug overdose deaths reach another horrendous record. According to data provided by the Centers for Disease and Prevention, 70,237 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in 2017.

Premature deaths resulting from alcohol misuse are not getting the same kind of attention but the trend for this addictive substance is equally troubling. Official statistics tells us that an estimated 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes every year. That oft-quoted number is from 2010, though—yet it is still higher than the most recent figure for drug overdose deaths. There are indications that the current real number of alcohol-related fatalities is much higher and increasing as well.

A study by the University of Michigan published last year shows that US deaths from cirrhosis and the end stages of liver damage rose by 65 percent from 1999 to 2016. Increases were primarily among young adults. Adults ages 25 to 34 experienced the highest average annual increase in cirrhosis deaths — about 10.5 percent each year. The rise was driven entirely by alcohol-related liver disease, the authors say.

A 2017 study published in JAMA Psychiatry also suggests that alcohol misuse has increased significantly in recent years. The authors compared data from 2001-2002 and 2012-2013 and documented substantial increases in the prevalence of past 12-month drinking, high-risk drinking, and alcohol use disorder (AUD).

According to that data, AUDs overall shot up by almost 50 percent, from 8.5 percent in 2001-2002 to 12.7 percent only eleven years later. “Alcohol use and specifically high-risk drinking, which often leads to alcohol use disorder (AUD), are significant contributors to the burden of disease in the United States and worldwide,” the study's authors concluded. They noted that alcohol misuse is a significant driver of mortality from a plethora of ailments: “fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, stroke, liver cirrhosis, several types of cancer and infections, pancreatitis, type 2 diabetes, and various injuries.”

Despite the horrors of the opioid epidemic, it is important to remember that alcohol continues to kill more Americans than opioids. There is also significant overlap. Many people addicted to drugs also misuse alcohol on a regular basis.

To be effective, any strategy to combat this addiction crisis must address the deeper reasons for the substance misuse. In most cases, addictions are not caused by the availability of harmful substances alone, but by attempts of people suffering from anxiety, trauma, and depression to self-medicate those underlying conditions. As a society, we need to understand why so many people—especially young people—feel the need to ease their pain with drugs and alcohol.

As part of the effort to fight the crisis, we need to dispel inaccurate ideas about addiction, fight the stigma still attached to this disease, and educate citizens about the scope of the problem.

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. The 2019 theme, “Help for Today, Hope for Tomorrow,” is designed to draw attention to the pervasive impact that alcohol, alcoholism and alcohol-related problems have on young people, their friends, families and communities -- and to highlight the reality that help is available and recovery is possible.