Alcohol Caused One in Eight Deaths of Working-Age U.S. Adults

CDC research shows excessive drinking is killing Americans in the “prime of their life”

People around a table drinking wine
New research finds that excessive alcohol consumption is killing Americans during their prime working years. Pexels

America has a drinking problem. Excessive alcohol consumption contributed to an estimated one in eight deaths—12.9 percent—of Americans ages 20 to 64, according to new research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drinking too much booze is also at fault for one in five deaths—20.3 percent—of Americans ages 20 to 49, per the study published last week in the journal JAMA Network Open.

The findings, which examined data from 2015 to 2019, show that alcohol is killing Americans during their prime working years, suggesting the substance could be affecting the country’s economy. Experts say the numbers point to the need for more policies and programs to help reduce excessive alcohol consumption, such as higher alcohol taxes or limited times for sales.

“Where the science needs to go is, what do we do about it?” says Katherine Keyes, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who was not involved in the study, to the New York Times’ Ted Alcorn.

Though drinking alcohol is known to be among the leading causes of preventable death in the United States, federal public health officials wanted to better understand how alcohol affects working-age Americans specifically. Past research has documented death rates that can be fully attributed to excessive drinking, such as alcoholic liver disease. But no one had comprehensively measured deaths from diseases and injuries alcohol may have played a partial role in, such as some types of cancer, shootings or drownings.

To tease out the alcohol-attributable death rate, scientists analyzed national and state mortality data. For deaths that weren’t directly attributable to drinking, the researchers based their estimates on surveyed alcohol use and per capita alcohol sales.

Roughly 694,660 Americans ages 20 to 64 died each year during the five-year time frame. Excessive alcohol use contributed to nearly 90,000 of those deaths each year, the researchers found.

“This is really affecting adults in the prime of their life,” Marissa Esser, a study co-author who leads the CDC’s alcohol program, tells the Times.

The leading causes of alcohol-attributable deaths varied by age group but included car crashes, other poisonings, alcoholic liver disease and homicide.

The death rate varied state by state, with a high of 21.7 percent in New Mexico and a low of 9.3 percent in Mississippi. It's unclear why states have such different outcomes, but further research may be able to help unravel what policies and programs seem to be working—and what's not working—across the country.

Map of U.S. with alcohol death rates
Alcohol death rates attributable to excess alcohol from 2015 to 2019 varied across states.  Esser et. al. / JAMA Network Open

The five-year study period did not overlap with the coronavirus pandemic, but the CDC separately released data last week that offers insights into how Covid-19 affected alcohol consumption. As expected, deaths caused by alcohol skyrocketed, killing more than 49,000 Americans in 2020—the first year of the pandemic—alone.

The CDC’s data, released on Friday, showed a larger-than-normal 26 percent spike in the alcohol-induced death rate between 2019 and 2020. For comparison, deaths caused by alcohol had been steadily growing during the two decades before the pandemic, but by roughly 7 percent or less each year.

Alcohol killed 10.4 out of every 100,000 people in 2019, but that number rose in 2020 to 13 deaths per 100,000 people. That’s the highest alcohol-induced death rate in at least 40 years, reports Mike Stobbe of the Associated Press.

Alcoholic liver disease and mental and behavioral disorders were the leading underlying causes of alcohol-induced deaths in 2020. Unlike the first study, the CDC data released on Friday focused only on deaths caused fully by alcohol and did not include deaths for which it may have been partially responsible, suggesting that the drinking’s real toll may be even larger.

“What was already a crisis has exploded,” says Marvin Ventrell, CEO of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers, to CNN’s Deidre McPhillips.

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