American alcohol-related deaths soar

Mar 26, 2024

A new study published earlier in February by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) demonstrates that deaths linked to excessive alcohol consumption jumped by 29% over the last five years. As part of the study, researchers examined data from the federal National Vital Statistics System.

While earlier research focused on direct alcohol-related deaths, the study carried out by the CDC also examined indirect links, including fatal injuries and alcohol-related cancers. Specifically, the researchers classified deaths based on the 58 alcohol-related conditions included in the CDC’s Alcohol-Related Disease Impact application.

The study results show that in 2016-2017, there was an annual average of nearly 138,000 people dying from alcohol-related causes, including motor vehicle crashes, alcohol poisoning, cancer, and cirrhosis. However, by 2020-2021, the period coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol contributed to more than 178,000 deaths per year on average in the U.S. The study also estimates that during the pandemic, 488 U.S. residents died every day from excessive alcohol use.

Moreover, the study showed that emergency department visit rates were associated with acute alcohol use during 2019-2020. The increase in alcohol-related deaths between 2017-2021 also coincides with a surge in alcohol sales in the U.S.

According to Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University, the main cause for this increase in alcohol-linked deaths was likely the COVID-19 pandemic. He also cited a combination of stress, loss of life, isolation, and mental health as contributing factors that resulted in many individuals self-medicating with alcohol.  

In his interview with PBS News, Dr. Siegel also suggested that the rise in alcohol-related deaths is likely to remain, unless the U.S. government addresses this issue. He also highlighted stigma related to seeking mental health services and an overburdened mental health care system as important factors responsible for the perpetuation of conditions leading to the increase in alcohol-related deaths.

“There is a stigma in our society that treats mental health as if there’s something wrong with you,” he said. “We wouldn’t say to someone with pneumonia, ‘Wow, you really have pneumonia. What a shame. Shame on you.’”

Dr. Siegel to PBS News

The study’s authors recommended several policy changes in order to curb alcohol-related harms and deaths in the U.S. “States and communities can discourage excessive alcohol use and reverse recent increases in alcohol-attributable deaths by implementing comprehensive strategies, including evidence-based alcohol policies that reduce the availability and accessibility of alcohol and increase its price (e.g., policies that reduce the number and concentration of places selling alcohol and increase alcohol taxes),” the article states.

“Also, CDC’s electronic screening and brief intervention can be used in primary and acute care, or nonclinical, settings to allow adults to check their alcohol use, receive personalized feedback, and create a plan for drinking less alcohol,” wrote the authors.