The products and practices of the alcohol industry are wreaking havoc in New Mexico. The death toll due to alcohol is much higher than in other states in the U.S. Almost three times more people die due to alcohol in New Mexico than the national average.
- 1878 New Mexicans died due to alcohol in 2020.
- A death rate that is higher than that of COVID-19 for people below 65 years in the state.
- On average five people in New Mexico die every day due to alcohol-related causes.
- One in five deaths among working-age New Mexico residents (20 – 64 years) is attributable to alcohol.
New Mexico has paid substantial political and media attention to tackling driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). The state’s DUI crashes rate was 70% higher than the national average in the 1990s. Today DUI crashes and fatalities have significantly reduced but alcohol harm continues to devastate communities.
The majority of alcohol deaths today is caused by other reasons but the sole focus on DUI remains and is overshadowing all other causes of the alcohol burden, including chronic diseases, violence and suicides.
In 2020 out of the 1878 alcohol deaths:
- 963 or about half were caused by alcoholic liver disease, liver cirrhosis, and alcohol abuse or dependence,
- 223 caused by multi-substance poisoning,
- 151 due to motor vehicle crashes,
- 125 due to suicide,
- 112 caused by alcohol poisoning,
- 100 caused by homicide,
- 40 by cancer,
- 28 due to falls, and
- 135 caused by other causes
Despite the death toll from alcoholic liver disease, liver cirrhosis, and alcohol use disorder or dependence being so high already, about half of all alcohol-related deaths in New Mexico are underreported. The state’s largest medical ICU in the University of New Mexico Hospital has only 24 beds. Medical director Dr. Erik Kraai estimated two to three out of these beds are always taken up by a person with an alcohol-related issue.
But alcohol issues have not come into focus of the political conversation or societal conversation.
Stigma and discrimination surrounding alcohol addiction have led affected people and families to avoid seeking help.
Political inertia and alcohol industry interference are other big reasons why attention to this topic is lacking.
The media has also failed so far to cover New Mexico’s alcohol burden properly.
New Mexico needs to improve alcohol policies beyond DUI laws
New Mexico’s DUI laws are an example of what the state’s policymakers can do when they decide to take action based on evidence.
In the 1990s the state had one of the highest DUI rates in the country. But what sparked action was a fatal DUI crash that took the lives of a mother and her three kids on Christmas 1992. This crash led to strong advocacy for improved DUI laws led by the grandmother of the family who died. The state then put one of the most comprehensive DUI laws into place. They included:
- Lowering the blood alcohol content (BAC) for driving from 0.10 to 0.08.
- Driver’s safety education.
- Alcohol server training.
- Mandatory jail time for DUI offenders.
- The jail time increased with each offense from weeks to a year.
- An increase in state liquor excise tax.
- Tax revenue was used to fund anti-DUI programs.
- Closure of drive-up windows at liquor stores.
- Mandatory installation of an ignition interlock for those convicted of DUI.
- This requires them to submit a Breathalyzer before starting the car.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving has rated the DUI program in New Mexico as the best in all of the U.S.
The positive impact of the DUI laws was clearly seen. Between 1990 and 2008 fatal DUI crashes decreased by 56% in the state even while the number of motorists increased. The laws brought the state’s DUI rates to the national average rate. The DUI cases prosecuted annually have fallen from 20,000 to about 10,000 and police say it’s harder now to find alcohol impaired drivers.
It’s harder for me now to find an alcohol impaired driver than it was 10 years ago,” said State Police Lt. Kurtis Ward who started the DWI Unit that patrols Albuquerque, as per New Mexico In Depth.State Police Lt. Kurtis Ward who started the DWI Unit that patrols Albuquerque
DUI successes are not being sustained
But over the last 15 years even the incidences of DUI have stopped declining further in New Mexico and even began to rise again in recent years. For example, there were more DUI convictions in 2020 than in 2007.
More and more people who are being caught for alcohol impaired driving are new and not previous offenders.
Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Court’s DWI First Offender Program where most first DUI offenders serve their sentence has a continuous stream of participants, about 1000 at any given time.
All evidence points to the fact that the program is not having as much of an effect as it used to and people are falling through its gaps.
Using the mechanisms of the criminal system to try to solve a problem will always be very incomplete,” said Bennett Baur, Chief Public Defender of New Mexico, as per New Mexico In Depth.Bennett Baur, Chief Public Defender of New Mexico
This reversing trend shows that just focusing on DUI as the only alcohol harm of public concern is not enough anymore. New Mexico needs improved population-level alcohol policy solutions.
Alcohol and violence in New Mexico
New Mexico is one of the most violent states in the United States.
- It has the highest number of women murdered by men.
- New Mexico has double the cases of child abuse and neglect compared to the rest of the country.
- It has one of the highest rates of suicide in the country.
- In 2021, Albuquerque’s homicide rate increased by 46% compared to 2020.
Alcohol fuels this violence. According to New Mexico In Depth analysis of state toxicology data 30% to 40% who die violent deaths have alcohol in their blood. Meanwhile, victims use alcohol to cope with what they are going through leading to dependence.
Alcohol also plays a major role in deaths by suicide. The state crisis line reports that among the 93,480 calls they get, callers are most likely to be intoxicated with alcohol at the time of calling than any other substance.
- About one in five New Mexicans who die by suicide have alcohol problems.
- About half of those aged 35 to 44 who died by suicide had been alcohol intoxicated.
I would put alcohol as it relates to suicide prevention as one of the top three concerns that people should be aware of,” said Wendy Linebrink-Allison, who manages the state’s crisis hotline, as per New Mexico In Depth.Wendy Linebrink-Allison, Manager, New Mexico crisis hotline
Trauma and alcohol use disorders also have a connection. In this way alcohol fuels a vicious cycle: it fuels violence which in turn leads to alcohol problems for victims. Children in New Mexico face more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) than children in most other states. ACEs are a known risk factor for developing alcohol dependence in adulthood.
This is why it is important for people who are alcohol dependent to treat their trauma and addiction simultaneously. However, healthcare providers who do this are rare in New Mexico.
Despite the heavy toll alcohol harm places on people and communities in New Mexico in terms of fueling violence very little political and even civil society attention is paid to alcohol as risk factor for violence.
The blame game
One harmful and persisting myth about the heavy alcohol burden in New Mexico is that it mostly affects Native Americans. One reason for this is that in McKinley County where 80% of the population is indigenous the alcohol death rate is three times higher than the New Mexico average and ten times higher than the national average.
While Native Americans die due to alcohol four times more often than the New Mexico average, Anglo and Hispanics also die at far higher rates in New Mexico than in other states. And Anglo and Hispanic people make up 80% of alcohol deaths in the state.
Singling out Native Americans as being more affected by the alcohol problem in New Mexico takes the focus away from the population level harm due to alcohol. The reason for the higher death rate in McKinley County is the unequal treatment of Indigenous communities and the state’s outdated policies governing alcohol sales.
Another group blamed for the heavy alcohol burden in New Mexico is people affected by alcohol use disorders and dependence. But dividing the population between people with an alcohol problem and “responsible” users takes the focus away from the key problem which is the products and practices of the alcohol industry and the health, social, and economic harm they are causing.
In addition, this is a false dichotomy as research shows there is no safe or healthy level of alcohol use.
Many people from New Mexico show signs of high-risk alcohol use. Surveys have found that one in four who used alcohol in the past month have difficulty controlling their alcohol use despite it having negative consequences on their daily life.
Meanwhile, many people who need counseling or treatment for their alcohol addiction are not receiving it. The New Mexico Department of Health reports that about 73,000 residents who could benefit from treatment to reduce their alcohol consumption are not getting it. This is more than people dependent on all other substances combined.
Despite research indicating the effectiveness of screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment (SBIRT) for alcohol use disorders not many primary care providers in New Mexico use this method. The medical community in New Mexico should do more in this regard.
Alcohol policy solutions can help New Mexicans
New Mexico has a bad habit of political inertia in the face of alcohol harm until the problems are so massive or catastrophic that they can’t be ignored any longer. However, scientific evidence shows that alcohol policy solutions are available to prevent alcohol harm and stop escalation of alcohol harm.
There is strong evidence that a package of alcohol policy solutions encompassing the World Health Organization’s Best Buy alcohol policies can reduce the alcohol burden in New Mexico. These policies include:
- Maintaining limits on days and hours of sale,
- Regulating the number of alcohol outlets, and
- Increasing alcohol taxes.
The Community Preventive Services Task Force, an independent government panel of scientific experts, has reviewed and endorsed all these policies. However, according to the New Mexico Department of Health the state “needs improvement” or is moving in the wrong direction on the majority of these measures.
Increasing alcohol taxes is the single most effective and cost-effective policy solution to reduce alcohol harm. Raising alcohol taxes has been found to be effective in reducing sexual violence, and child abuse and neglect. Sara Markowitz, a professor of economics at Emory University wrote that more than 10% of incidents of child abuse and neglect could be prevented by a 10% increase in alcohol taxes.
Despite the overwhelming evidence for increasing alcohol taxes, the last time there was an increase was in 1994 with the strengthening of DUI laws. The state’s alcohol taxes have fallen to their lowest real value in 30 years. And as a result alcohol has gotten ultra cheap in New Mexico – fueling the escalation of harm.
Big Alcohol lobbying against raising alcohol taxes in New Mexico
So what’s causing the hold-up and inertia? Big Alcohol lobbying against proven alcohol policy measures.
The Big Alcohol lobby has systematically opposed every effort to improve alcohol policies in New Mexico. Most recently the effort by a coalition of advocates to increase alcohol excise taxes fell through due to heavy alcohol industry lobbying.
The bill proposed to increase alcohol taxes by a quarter per alcoholic beverage. The report for the advocacy campaign concluded that this tax increase could,
- prevent over 12,000 new cases of alcohol dependence,
- save 52 lives, and
- raise $154 million for New Mexico.
Democratic Rep. Joanne Ferrary carried the Bill in the House and Cisco McSorely a Democrat from Albuquerque, sponsored the Bill in the Senate. Anticipating opposition from craft brewers he exempted brewers who produce fewer than 15,000 barrels a year from the tax increase. This was almost every brewery in New Mexico. However, the policy would have been effective since 90% of the beer consumed in the state was produced by large out-of-state brewers.
Nevertheless, the craft brewers also joined the organized alcohol industry opposition to the proposed tax hike. The alcohol industry attack to kill the bill was organized including lobbyists representing alcohol license holders, gas stations, and breweries; with the support and deep pockets of multinational alcohol giants, the Bill was killed at the hearing by the Corporations and Transportation Committee on February 20, 2017.
The Big Alcohol lobbyists were known to treat legislators with meals and alcohol at local restaurants and pubs during their lobby against the tax raise. AB InBev, one of the key opponents of the alcohol tax raise in New Mexico, made $30,000 in political contributions to legislators during re-election later in 2017.
The heavy alcohol industry’s influence on policymaking in New Mexico could be one reason for the weakening of alcohol policies in 2021’s Liquor Control Act. While the Act did ban the sale of miniature bottles of liquor for off-site consumption, which was probably the only positive measure for public health, the other measures were disastrous:
- Making it easier for restaurants to acquire licenses to sell liquor.
- Allowing existing license holders to make home deliveries of alcohol.
- Allowing restaurants and bars to sell beer, wine, and cocktails starting at 7 a.m. on Sundays rather than 11 a.m.
- Giving the McKinley County retailers the choice to sell either gas or liquor, but not both leading them to pick liquor.
An alarm bell for lawmakers
The heavy alcohol burden in New Mexico has again (finally) caught the attention of lawmakers. On August 24, 2022, the Senate Courts, Corrections, and Justice Committee conducted an all-day hearing dedicated to examining the role of alcohol in crime, disease, and death in New Mexico.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that in 2010 alcohol cost the New Mexico government $2.23 billion ($2.9 billion in today’s dollars according to New Mexico In Depth). This is more than $1,000 per New Mexico resident per year.
Since the state’s alcohol-induced deaths have almost doubled as of 2010 if the same figures are applied now, the cost of alcohol would be more than $6 billion per year.
One common argument by Big Alcohol lobbyists against increasing alcohol taxes is that the alcohol industry generates revenue for the government and this would take a hit if taxes were raised. However, costs due to alcohol harm dwarf any revenue generated by the industry. For example, as per the alcohol industry’s own estimates in 2020, the wine industry contributed about $370 million and beer manufacture and distribution contributed $1.6 billion to New Mexico. The costs to society caused by the products and practices dwarf the economic contribution from the alcohol industry
The lawmakers did not come up with a particular solution for New Mexico’s alcohol problem at the hearing. Some of the suggestions are as follows:
- Expanding technology in cars to detect alcohol use by the driver (the 2021 federal infrastructure bill includes this on new cars).
- Making liquor less available at convenience stores.
- Reducing the 0.08% blood alcohol content level.
- Improving behavioral health programs.
The New Mexico Department of Health has its own plans to increase surveillance and data collection on fetal alcohol syndrome and other alcohol-related problems to give policymakers more information on how to address the issue.
While New Mexico’s policymakers are still not talking about raising alcohol taxes or other best buy policy measures, this is still a start. The hope is that this start would lead to better alcohol policy solutions in the state with the highest alcohol deaths.
Albuquerque Journal: “Editorial: New Mexico worst in nation for deaths due to alcohol“
New Mexico In Depth: “Blind Drunk Series“