Study reveals stark number of alcohol-related deaths among young Americans

Editor's Note: The NewsHour incorrectly reported that one out of every eight working-age Americans died from excessive drinking between 2015 in 2019. Instead, one of every eight deaths among working-age Americans was related to alcohol.

Drug overdoses and the opioid epidemic have devastated the country for the past two decades, taking far too many lives. But alcohol use and abuse is a huge problem that far gets less attention. As John Yang reports, a new study documents just how big a toll it is taking on American lives.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We know that drug overdoses and the opioid epidemic have risen dramatically over the past few decades, causing one — hundreds of thousands of deaths.

    But alcohol use and abuse is a huge problem as well, one that gets far less attention. A new study documents just how big a toll it is taking on American lives.

    John Yang has the details.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, the study, which is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that, between 2015 in 2019, one in eight working-age Americans died from excessive drinking.

    Among those ages 20 to 49, one in five deaths was attributable to alcohol. For those ages 20 to 34, it was one in four. Overall, working-age Americans accounted for nearly two-thirds of the nation's annual average of 140,000 alcohol-related deaths.

    Ted Alcorn is an independent journalist who covers health and justice for The New York Times and other outlets.

    Ted, thanks so much for joining us.

    I know you watch this issue very, very closely. What struck you or what stood out to you from this report?

  • Ted Alcorn, Independent Journalist:

    Well, the CDC only do this kind of analysis and release, this full accounting of alcohol-related deaths, every few years.

    And the trends have been going up for a long time. But it's still shocking when you see it, that alcohol is killing about 140,000 Americans a year, and two-thirds of those deaths are people in their working age from 20 to 64. So it's not only a huge public health problem, but it's cutting to the core of people in the prime of their life, when they're economically productive.

    And for all those reasons, it's a little bit neglected as a public health crisis in this country.

  • John Yang:

    You talk about sort of neglected as a public health crisis.

    So much attention has been given to opioids in the recent years. And can you compare the two?

  • Ted Alcorn:

    Well, clearly, the country has been juggling a lot of public health challenges for the last few years. We have our plate full, for sure.

    And we're rightly giving a lot of attention to opioid overdose deaths, which have been climbing. And I have done a lot of reporting on that as well. But those deaths come to around 100,000 people a year. So, as you can see, alcohol actually kills more people than opioids, but gets, I'd say, a fraction of the attention.

  • John Yang:

    Why doesn't it get as much attention? I mean, this is a substance that's largely legal, is sort of lightly regulated in a lot of ways compared to opioids.

    Does that sort of create this impression that it's not a problem?

  • Ted Alcorn:

    Well, alcohol is a popular commodity. It's still a minority of Americans that actually partake, but that amounts to tens of millions of people who enjoy it responsibly. And it's a part of meaningful, happy moments in a lot of our lives.

    But it also has huge societal costs. And I think we underappreciate those harms because some of them are scattered across the health system. People tend to think of alcohol and its impacts being on the roadways, in terms of drunk driving accidents, and don't recognize the huge number of chronic disease deaths that it contributes to.

    The CDC study put together 58 different causes of death. All are alcohol-attributable, including some that aren't necessarily top of mind of people, but are very important. Alcohol is a risk factor for breast cancer among women. It's actually now thought to contribute to cardiovascular disease.

    So, for all those reasons, only when with CDC puts all of these causes of death together do we really get a full picture of the catastrophic damage it's doing.

  • John Yang:

    And the data in this study only goes up to 2019 because of how they collect the data and that sort of thing, obviously before the pandemic.

    During the pandemic, with social isolation, is there any sense that this might have actually gotten worse?

  • Ted Alcorn:

    The data that the CDC puts together in this comprehensive way is, as you point out, already a few years out of date.

    But the preliminary data, mortality data that we have from 2020 suggests that, indeed, some kinds of alcohol-related deaths jumped considerably that year. And it was a period of time when people appeared to have been drinking more frequently, drinking at home, and drinking sometimes at a higher volume than they would have been if they'd been out at restaurants or bars.

    So the numbers as they come in now for this year and in future years are likely to be even worse.

  • John Yang:

    The study also showed wide disparity in alcohol-related deaths from region to region. For instance, in New Mexico, it's incredibly high.

    You looked at New Mexico. What's going on there? Why is it so high there?

  • Ted Alcorn:

    The state is head and shoulders above other states in the number of alcohol-related deaths that it has.

    And the study shows that, in New Mexico, people who die between the ages of 20 and 39, fully one IN three are alcohol-related. And that's due to a constellation of factors there that has to do with the region, the poverty of the state, the disparities within the state, and a health system that's still catching up and trying to treat these.

    But researchers say it also has to do with a pretty weak policy environment. New Mexico, like most states, has typically not embraced a lot of the measures that scientists say would be important for addressing excess alcohol use.

  • John Yang:

    And what are some of those measures? I mean, this study gives us sort of a sense of the size of the problem.

    What are some of the measures and public policy solutions that could be used to try to address it?

  • Ted Alcorn:

    Well, Dr. Marissa Esser, who is the head of the CDC's alcohol program, told me that evidence-based strategies are out there and underused.

    And the ones that she ticked off as being top priorities are, one, to increase the price of alcohol by using alcohol taxes to do so. And that's just a matter of simple economics that, when prices go up, demand has to go down. And, contrary to that evidence, the U.S. Congress last year made permanent some reductions in the federal alcohol excise taxes.

    And the trend across most states has been to allow those taxes to shrink, controlling for population. So, alcohol, by all appearances, is more affordable today for most people than it has been in American history.

  • John Yang:

    Journalist Ted Alcorn, thank you very much.

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