Alcohol causes more deaths than all drug overdoses combined. America is in the middle of an alcohol epidemic.
That’s one takeaway from a new study published this month in Alcoholism, which found the number of alcohol-related deaths more than doubled between 1999 and 2017 from nearly 36,000 to nearly 73,000, and the rate of alcohol-related deaths rose by more than 50 percent from 16.9 per 100,000 people to 25.5.
To put that in perspective, there were roughly 70,000 drug overdose deaths in the US in 2017. Based on the Alcoholism study, alcohol was linked to more deaths than all overdoses — even at the height of America’s opioid epidemic. Alcohol accounted for 2.6 percent of all deaths among people 16 and older in 2017, up from 1.5 percent in 1999.
The study looked at mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics to analyze alcohol-related deaths among people aged 16 and older from 1999 to 2017, the last year of data available at the time of the study. Deaths were alcohol-related if alcohol was marked in death certificates as an underlying or contributing cause.
Men, people between 45 and 74 years old, and American Indians and Alaska Natives were disproportionately likely to die from alcohol. The largest increase in alcohol-related deaths occurred among white women.
Nearly half of alcohol deaths were due to liver diseases or overdoses linked to alcohol alone or alcohol and other drugs. The other half included, among many factors, car crashes, other unintentional injuries, suicide, homicide, and heart disease.
According to the researchers, the deaths tracked with other research showing a rise in the consumption of alcohol and related harms, including emergency room visits and other hospitalizations.
There were nearly 1 million alcohol-related deaths between 1999 and 2017, the study found. In that same time frame, drug overdose deaths totaled a bit over 700,000.
The researchers cautioned that their figures likely undercount the number of alcohol-related deaths. A previous analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based on 2006 to 2010 data, put deaths due to excessive drinking at 88,000 per year. But that analysis relied on more than data from death certificates, which are known to miss potentially thousands of alcohol-related deaths. With a more expansive analysis like the CDC’s, the study’s results could have been even worse.
The study speaks to a problem in American public health and drug policy: While crises like the opioid epidemic (deservedly) get a lot of attention, even deadlier drug crises are often neglected by the public, policymakers, and media.