Opioid Epidemic Grabs Our Attention Even as Alcohol Problem Steadily Worsens

Stressful day at the office. Young businessman holding hands on his face while sitting at the desk in creative office

It is estimated that 88,000 Americans die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol use the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States. More than 17 million people aged 18 and older in the U.S. have alcohol dependence or an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

It is estimated that 53,000 Americans died from opioid-related causes in 2016, which was more than auto crash-related deaths in the same year. More than 3 million people in the U.S. have an opioid painkiller addiction. Further, drug overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.

Although alcohol-related deaths outnumber opioid- and opiate-related deaths in the U.S., it is alarming that drug overdose death rates have more than tripled nationwide since 1990 — and more than three out of five drug-related deaths involve an opioid, according to the CDC. President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency in October 2017, pledging to help state leaders and various agencies address the drug crisis through a multipronged addiction prevention and treatment effort.

Yet, has all this attention on the opioid crisis distracted us from another public health crisis that is brewing? Alcohol misuse and dependence is actually more prevalent than opioid addiction and, in recent years, drinking rates in the U.S. have risen significantly.

Americans Are Drinking More Alcohol Than Before

According to a report in Forbes, not only are more Americans drinking than before, they are drinking more than before.

The Forbes report was based on survey data gathered in 2013 from more than 80,000 participants over a 12-month period, which showed that alcohol use among U.S. adults had increased by 11% since a similar survey in 2001-2002 — particularly among minorities, women, senior citizens and low-income groups. High-risk drinking, where a person consumes four or more drinks at least one day per week, had increased by nearly 30%. The survey found that drinking rates had started increasing significantly during the 1990s, after a relative decline in alcohol misuse during the 1970s and 1980s.

The same survey revealed that alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence spiked most sharply among women, African Americans and seniors since 2002 — by 84% among women, 93% among African Americans and 105% among seniors.

Binge drinking has long been a problem among America’s youth — according to a separate 2015 survey, roughly 5.1 million Americans aged 12 to 20 reported binge drinking in the last month.

Increased Stress Has Led to Increased Drinking in Several Population Groups

Why are Americans drinking so much? In part, likely because they are trying to do too much.

Data shows that married adults in urban areas have higher patterns of alcohol misuse. Researchers believe that the dual responsibilities of juggling career and family lead to increased stress levels for many adults, which leads them to drink more.

Are many young adults also experiencing high levels of stress due to pressures at college? A 2015 survey showed that 58% of full-time college students aged 18 to 22 drank alcohol in the last month, and roughly 20% of U.S. college students meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. About one in four college students reported suffering academic consequences as a result of their drinking, including lower performance in their classes and lower grades on exams.

Binge-drinking — consuming five or more drinks in a single day, often in a span of two hours or less — is a drinking pattern not exclusive to the college-age crowd. A study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that binge-drinking patterns increased among Americans over age 60 from 1997 to 2014. Whether binge-drinking or otherwise, Americans over 60 are drinking more than they were 20 years ago, with drinking rates in older women on the rise. “Historically, the prevalence of drinking has been higher in older men than in older women,” said study author Rosalind Breslow, PhD, MPH. “It still is, but the gender gap has been narrowing over approximately the last two decades.” While the reasons for increased drinking among older adults is unclear, the negative impact on their health is undeniable — the older we get, the less efficiently we metabolize alcohol, which causes more problems in our bodies.

Researchers hypothesize that heavier drinking among people in minority and lower-income groups may be due to increasing stress driven by America’s continuing socioeconomic problems. Since the 2008 recession, there has been a widening economic gap between minorities and whites, leading to increased feelings of depression and discouragement among those who are still struggling to make ends meet.

Regardless of the demographics of alcohol consumption in the U.S., and regardless of whether a person’s alcohol use qualifies as an alcohol use disorder, alcohol is a commonly used poisonous, addictive substance. Alcohol negatively impacts our health in myriad ways, impairing us and interacting dangerously with many medications, including opioids, raising the risk for drug toxicity and overdose — a factor we’d all be wise to remember.


Alcohol Facts and Statistics; Alcohol Use in the United States. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, June 2017. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics

Fact Sheets – Alcohol Use and Your Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), October 2016. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm

Prevalence of 12-Month Alcohol Use, High-Risk Drinking, and DSM-IV Alcohol Use Disorder in the United States, 2001-2002 to 2012-2013. Results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. BF Grant et al. JAMA Psychiatry, September 2017. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/2647079

People in the U.S. Are Drinking More Alcohol Than Ever: Study. Alice G. Walton. Forbes: Pharma & Healthcare, August 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2017/08/12/people-in-the-u-s-are-drinking-more-alcohol-than-ever-study/#773974c03eb7

Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. SAMHSA, NSDUH, 2016. https://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/SMA17-5044/SMA17-5044.pdf

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