The rise in alcohol deaths in the United States (U.S.) highlights the decade long alcohol policy failure by the federal and state governments in the country.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol caused more than 140,000 deaths every year between 2015-2019. This is 380 lives taken by alcohol every day.
The figures were calculated using CDC’s Alcohol-Related Disease Impact (ARDI) application, using a new methodology. The ARDI application shows estimates of alcohol-attributable deaths and years of potential life lost from 58 conditions by age, sex, and state.
According to the findings every year alcohol deaths had the following consequences:
- Reduced the average lifespan of those who passed away by 26 years, resulting in a loss of roughly 3.6 million years of potential life.
- Generally involved adults aged 35 or older and males.
- Were primarily brought about by the long-term health impacts of chronic alcohol use, including several cancers, liver diseases, and heart diseases.
- Led to premature deaths.
- Deaths from using too much alcohol in a short time (from causes such as motor vehicle crashes, poisonings involving substances in addition to alcohol, and suicides) accounted for more than half of the years of potential life lost.
Meanwhile, heavy alcohol use cost the nation $249 billion in 2010 (the most recent year of data available).
Decades-long alcohol policy failure in the United States
The rise in alcohol deaths in the U.S. is a symptom of a failing alcohol policy system in the country. One example of this alcohol policy failure is the erosion of alcohol taxes over the years and tax breaks given to Big Alcohol instead of protecting the public interest.
A study from Boston University School of Public Health found that inflation has eroded U.S. alcohol tax rates by 70% since 1933.
Despite this, the United States Congress continued to give the alcohol industry a large tax break in December 2019, resulting in a loss of billions of dollars for the government.
- Without the tax breaks, the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) would have paid $275 million in higher taxes.
- A beer industry group claims they would have to pay $130 million in higher taxes.
- California wineries alone would have paid $150 million in higher taxes.
All of this money represents wasted tax revenue for the government, money that could have been used to improve the lives of people and communities that are severely harmed by widespread alcohol harm across the nation.
Adding fuel to the fire, the alcohol industry systematically lobbied to worsen state alcohol policies during the COVID-19 pandemic to permit alcohol home delivery. Thus, increasing alcohol use in the U.S. and maximizing Big Alcohol profits at the cost of the health and well-being of the people in the U.S.
As a result of Big Alcohol lobbying, 35 states introduced cocktails-to-go laws during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing pickup and home delivery of alcohol by on-premise alcohol sales places such as restaurants, bars, and pubs.
Out of these 35 states,
- 18 states and Washington D.C. have made the worsened alcohol laws permanent, and
- 14 states have further extended the rules.
Additionally, in the U.S., all but three of the 50 federal states gave liquor stores a lockdown exemption, many classifying the businesses – along with grocery stores and pharmacies – as a COVID-19 essential service.
The harm caused by worsened alcohol policies in the U.S.
The result of the worsening of alcohol laws during the pandemic and the heavy pandemic-centric alcohol marketing by Big Alcohol was a hike in alcohol use during this time period.
- In the first few weeks of lockdowns, alcohol sales jumped 54% over the previous year.
- A JAMA Network Journal study from September 2020 reported that alcohol consumption was up by 14% in 2020 compared to 2019.
- A study by RAND published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that alcohol use problems increased among both men and women (69% and 49%) respectively.
The rising alcohol use has accelerated already rising alcohol deaths in the U.S. adding to the decrease in life expectancy in the country.
A study published in JAMA Network found that alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. increased by about 25% from 2019 to 2020.
Experts have warned that if the rise in alcohol use during COVID-19 is sustained death and disease caused by alcohol in the U.S. would increase significantly over the next few years.
Simulations in one study published in the journal Addiction found that, if the increase in alcohol consumption observed in the U.S. in the first year of the pandemic continues, alcohol-related deaths, diseases, and associated costs will increase substantially over the next 5 years.
As per the study, short-term increases in alcohol consumption resulted in:
- Loss of 79,000 QALYs,
- 295,000 more alcohol-related hospitalizations, and
- Additional $5.4 billion cost over 5 years.
The federal and state governments of the U.S. need to urgently improve alcohol policies in the country to protect citizens from the harms caused by the products and practices of the alcohol industry. Increasing alcohol taxation and rethinking alcohol delivery laws are two aspects the country needs to pay immediate attention to.
Additionally, the U.S. can use the World Health Organization‘s SAFER technical package which provides a blueprint for the most effective alcohol policy solutions to prevent and reduce alcohol harm.
- Strengthen restrictions on alcohol availability
- Advance and enforce driving under the influence counter measures.
- Facilitate access to screening, brief interventions and treatment.
- Enforce bans or comprehensive restrictions on alcohol advertising, sponsorship, and promotion.
- Raise prices on alcohol through excise taxes and pricing policies.