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Alcohol vs Drugs: Which Kills More Americans?

Alcohol vs Drugs: Which Kills More Americans?

Much ado is being made about last year’s increase in drug overdose deaths in the United States. And rightly so. But barely a peep is being heard about the increase in binge drinking. That’s odd considering the numbers were almost exactly the same. It’s even odder considering binge drinking’s role in alcohol-related deaths. Apparently when it comes to alcohol vs drugs, drugs still get the benefit of no doubt.

But are drugs really winning that tragic battle? Did pills and powders truly kill more Americans last year than alcohol? The good folks at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) say No and No. And when this division of the National Institutes of Health lays down its stats, people would do well to listen.

Alcohol vs Drugs: The Battleground Breakdown

We turn to two of the nation’s preeminent watchdogs. First is the aforementioned NIAAA, which monitors the country’s drinking. That includes alcohol intake and its repercussions, which of course includes alcohol-related injuries and deaths.

Our second national overseer is the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Specifically, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, which provides no end of information regarding our country’s health and well-being. Naturally, substance abuse is among its long list of concerns. And in this case the substance is drugs.

Here’s what the two found:

NIAA Findings

The NIAA’s 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found alcohol to be pretty universal among Americans. In fact, a whopping 85.6% of folks 18 and older reported drinking alcohol at some point in their lifetime. Things whittled down a bit though when it came to current use, with 69.5% reporting drinking in the past year, and 54.9% reporting drinking in the past month.

Then things really got interesting (and not in a good way either). A full 25.8% of the above 18 and overs reported binge drinking over 2019. As you probably suspect, these high intensity drinkers are a danger to themselves, as well as others. Make that an ever increasing danger, because those that binged at twice the threshold ended up 70 times more likely to have an alcohol-related emergency department visit. Those who binged at three times the threshold? Well, they were 93 times as likely. Really.

That places a whole lot of fellow Americans in need of emergency medical assistance. In fact, it’s 210,000 more over the eight years leading up to 2014. Or a full 18.5% of emergency room visits. That’s just shy of the 22.1% ER visits for opioids.

If over 200,000 people drank themselves into the ER over eight years, what does that say about 2019’s 10,142 alcohol-impaired driving fatalities? That an over large percentage of those alcohol-fueled ER visits ended in death, that’s what.

Long term drinking is worse, with an estimated 95,000 people dying from alcohol-related causes each and every year. That makes alcohol this country’s third-leading preventable cause of death. The first is tobacco, and the second is poor diet and physical inactivity.

Ugly numbers no matter how you cast them.

NCHS Findings

The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics delivered some provisional data that was equally bleak. To begin with, it estimated 93,331 drug overdose deaths in the United States over the course of 2020. That’s a 29.4% increase from the 72,151 deaths predicted for 2019.

Opioid overdoses were of course by far the worst. Those rose from 50,963 to 69,710. But meth and cocaine overdoses also rose considerably.

Across the country, the February 2020 – February 2021 drug overdose death rate is predicted to rise 30.4% from the previous year. (It’s already reported a 29.7% rise.) That brings us to the astronomically disheartening 93,331.

There were however a few bright spots. The interactive map citing the above percentages shows four states are predicted to show an actual decrease in overdose deaths (three of those have already reported so). That’s right, overdose deaths are predicted to drop in South Dakota (-6.9%), New Hampshire (-2.1%), New Jersey and Delaware (-.04% each). Those findings would be remarkable under even normal circumstances; during Covid they’re absolutely astonishing.

It sure is terrific to be astonished in a positive way for a change.

Alcohol vs Drugs: The Results

In most cases, presenting findings from two different years would seem to benefit those with the most recent results. Not so here. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Granted, a binge drinking rate of 25.8% falls short of the predicted 29.4% rise in drug overdose deaths. But the estimated 95,000 annual alcohol-related deaths obviously tops the 93,331 fatal overdoses. More importantly, those alcohol results are from 2019 rather than 2020 and don’t take Covid into account. It’s more than quite likely that once the pandemic is figured into the equation, the number of alcohol-related fatalities will unfortunately rise even further.

No, it’s not a contest. And frankly, quibbling about stats is pretty much meaningless. It’s important to remember though that alcohol remains a serious killer of Americans; at least as serious of a killer as drugs. So when it comes to mandates and legislation and studies and — above all — treatment, it’s equally important to treat alcohol equally.

Healing Properties

Healing Properties thanks the CDC, the NIH and the NIAAA for their true and due diligence. These organizations help hold everyone’s feet to the fire. And that, in turn, helps America — and Americans — to be healthy. Or at least healthier. Yes, it sometimes seems we’re taking 10 steps back for every single step forward. But these days there are more of us doing the stepping. A whole lot more. So it only stands to reason there’d be more missteps. Throw Covid into the mix, and the rise also seems almost within reason.

Not quite. In fact, not ever. There’s no reason we should see even one more fatality. And that’s from either alcohol or drugs. But the battle isn’t between harmful substances; it’s between us and harmful substances. And right now those substances are winning. Perhaps we’d have a better chance if we ditched the whole alcohol vs drugs sideshow battle altogether.

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