New Studies Suggest that Alcoholism is a Major Public Health Crisis

The percentage of Americans drinking alcohol rose drastically over the past decade, and researchers are now posturing that it’s a public health crisis on par with the opioid epidemic.

High-risk alcohol consumption increased by nearly 30 percent among U.S. adults between the years of 2001-2002 and 2012-2013, according to a study published last month in JAMA Psychiatry.

Researchers conducted face-to-face interviews and surveys with nearly 40,000 Americans, first in the years 2001-2002, and followed up with those individuals between 2012-2013, hoping to gain an idea of what their drinking patterns were like throughout the course of a year. From there, they compared the results in order to assess changes in drinking habits and practices.

What they found was shocking: alcohol use was up 11 percent overall, and those who engaged in high-risk drinking rose from 20.2 million people to nearly 30 million.

These drastic changes are “pretty unprecedented,” says lead study author Bridget Grant, an epidemiologist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Particularly worrisome is the fact that these increases were concentrated to a few specific and marginalized groups.

“Heavy drinking was up 65 percent among those aged 65 and older, 62 percent among black Americans, and 58 percent among women,” Olivia Campbell writes for New York Mag. “For Alcohol Use Disorder, people aged 45 to 64 saw an 82 percent increase, while those 65 and older a 107 percent increase. Among women and black Americans, Alcohol Use Disorder increased 84 percent and 93 percent, respectively. Notable increases were also seen among those with lower incomes and lower education levels.”

What is the reason for this?

Grant argues that there are a number of factors that might have triggered the increases in alcohol use, but she points to the economic downturn as one possible culprit.

“Whenever there’s more economic stress for the country as a whole, people increasingly turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism,” she explains. Since depression rates have also skyrocketed, and she surmises that people may be using alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Higher levels of drinking also correlate to widening income gaps, the destigmatization of gendered drinking, and lack of affordable health care treatment were also cited as major concerns.

Regardless of the reason for these changes, the study’s findings paint a worrisome picture for the future. Alcohol consumption is tied to a slew of chronic medical problems, including cancer, stroke, heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver, diabetes, a number of psychiatric problems, and higher risk of death. In addition, injuries caused by drunk drivers are on the rise.

To put it in more concrete terms, “as little as a drink and a half per day can cause a significant increase in the risk of breast cancer, while heavy drinking can take as much as five to ten years off a person’s life,” Marc Schuckit, a psychiatrist at the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine explains. “Alcohol-related problems are estimated to cost society as much as $250 billion per year.”

Despite the risks, public health officials may have a harder time when it comes to curbing the use of alcohol. Alcohol is legal and relatively inexpensive, and the public is relatively unaware of just how bad alcohol consumption is for your health.

“Once a substance is made legal and becomes generally acceptable, you’re going to have a heck of a time getting people to restrict their use of it,” Schuckit said. “It’s so common, with a fairly low effect per dose — the effect is not as dramatic as, say, a line of cocaine. It’s been around a long time, and been acceptable for many, many generations. That interferes with people looking at themselves and seeing that they have a problem.”

As the study concludes, these new findings highlight the necessity of educating the public, policymakers, and healthcare professionals about the dangers high-risk drinking and alcohol abuse, destigmatizing these conditions and encouraging those who cannot reduce their alcohol consumption to seek treatment.

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