The Deadliest Sip: Alcohol Killing Americans in Record Numbers

By May Wilkerson 12/29/15

In 2014, alcohol killed more Americans than painkillers and heroin.

Alcohol and death

In recent years, the media and public health experts have focused on the rise in fatalities from heroin and prescription painkillers. But the biggest threat to Americans remains alcohol. Americans are dying from alcohol abuse at the highest rate in the last 35 years, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Last year, more than 30,700 people in the US died from alcohol-related causes, including alcohol poisoning and cirrhosis of the liver. This is approximately 9.6 deaths per 100,000 people, a 37% rise since 2002.

In 2014, more people died from alcohol-induced causes (30,722) than from overdoses of prescription painkillers and heroin combined (28,647), says the CDC. These stats exclude deaths from drunk driving, other accidents, and murders committed under the influence of alcohol, which would bring the death toll directly or indirectly caused by alcohol up to nearly 90,000, according to the CDC.

Researchers say the rising death toll is likely due to the fact that Americans are simply drinking more. "Since the prevalence of heavy drinking tends to follow closely with per capita consumption, it is likely that one explanation for the growth in alcohol-related deaths is that more people are drinking more," wrote Philip J. Cook, a Duke University professor who studies alcohol consumption patterns and their effects. He said per-capita alcohol consumption in the US has been steadily increasing over the past two decades.

The number of American adults who drink at least once a month rose from 54.9% to 56.9% between 2002 and 2014, according to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This increase was greater among women: 51.9% of women reported drinking at least monthly in 2014, up from 47.9% in 2002. And binge drinking by women, defined as five or more drinks in a few hours, is up to 17.4% from 15.7% in 2002.

People who drink the most are at the highest risk for alcohol-related death. According to past research by Cook, the top 10% of American drinkers consume close to 74 drinks a week on average. Drinking at this rate is linked to a range of health complications, including cirrhosis, cancer, brain damage, drunk driving and other accident fatalities.

For more moderate drinkers, the health effects of alcohol remain less clear. Some research suggests moderate alcohol consumption, around one-to-two drinks per day, may actually help Americans live longer, healthier lives.

But it can be easy to cross the line from moderate to harmful drinking, especially since people often underestimate how much alcohol they drink, and intoxication can make a person prone to keep drinking. And compared to other recreational drugs, alcohol may be the most dangerous. A recent study found that, when used alone, alcohol was the deadliest recreational substance, followed by heroin and cocaine.

For this reason, some researchers are urging public health officials to shift focus away from the dangers of illicit drugs like pot and LSD, and to focus more on educating people about the dangers of drinking.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.

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