One in 10 deaths among working-age adults between 2006 and 2010 were attributable to excessive drinking, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
A study published in Preventing Chronic Disease found that excessive alcohol use — which includes binge drinking, heavy weekly alcohol consumption and drinking while underage or pregnant — was responsible for approximately 88,000 deaths between 2006 and 2010. The lives of those who died were shortened by about 30 years.
About 70% of those deaths were working-age adults between the ages of 20 to 64, said Mandy Stahre, epidemiologist at the Washington State Department of Health and author of the study.
"We're talking about a large economic impact, people who are contributing to society," Stahre said. "They're in the prime of their lives, whether they're building up careers or midcareer. A lot of attention we tend to focus on is maybe college drinking or just drunk driving. This really talked about the broadness of the problem."
The study was conducted using the CDC's Alcohol-Related Disease Impact tool, which estimates total alcohol-attributable deaths across the United States and in individual states. This study marks the first release of a nationwide report on the number of alcohol-related deaths, but Stahre said they had been collecting information since 2001. The tool gathers mortality statistics from local and state governments, and used scientific methods developed by a group of experts on alcohol and public health to determine the number of deaths linked to alcohol use.
There has been a small rise in deaths since 2001, but nothing statistically significant, Stahre said. The 2010 figures represent the last year that data is available, but Stahre hopes the CDC will continue releasing reports every five years to monitor the mortality rates. Stahre also hopes the reports will push state governments to enact more policies concerning alcohol regulation and spread awareness of the potentially fatal consequences of excessive drinking.
William Kerr, a scientist with the Alcohol Research Group, a national research organization, agrees that the current government policies in place could be strengthened toward alcohol regulation.
"It's important to think about what might be done to reduce this (death) toll, and think about government policies that might reduce availability and increase the price of alcohol that is known to impact drinking in general and binge drinking," Kerr said.
The Distilled Spirits Council, however, took issue with recommendations it says the CDC has made for increased alcohol taxes, and limiting hours for alcohol sales and the density of retail alcohol outlets. "Repeatedly, studies have shown that alcohol abusers are affected little by price," said Lisa Hawkins, the council's vice president, in a statement. It's the moderate alcohol consumers who are most affected by price, she said.
The CDC tool estimates the number of the alcohol-related deaths that were caused by long-term health effects such as liver disease and heart disease, as well as short-period effects such as violence, alcohol poisoning, car crashes and drowning.
Stahre said binge drinking (four or more drinks per occasion for women, five or more for men) played a large role in many of these short-term health effects and even some long-term effects. Traci Toomey, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in alcohol prevention, agreed that binge drinkers may pose a bigger problem to society than some may think.
"Oftentimes when we talk about alcohol-related problems, people assume it's about alcoholism and they're the ones causing all the problems, when in fact any of us can drink alcohol in excess," Toomey said. "So because people occasionally binge drink and there are many more of them (than alcoholics), those non-addicted binge drinkers account for more problems in our society."
This can result in an increase in binge drinking-related accidents on holidays such as July 4th, Stahre said, when people tend to drink heavily, adding risk to activities like boating and swimming. About 1.7 million people died from short-term causes such as crashes or accidents, compared to approximately 800,000 who died from long-term health causes like cancer or strokes, according to the study.
"Alcohol is a common, socially accepted drug in our society, and it's widely legally available and glorified to a great extent, so that certainly creates a culture where binge drinking is common and accepted in many settings," said Toben Nelson, an epidemiologist and University of Minnesota professor.