Editorial: An old Problem

The opioid epidemic is claiming lives, filling jail cells, breaking up families, diminishing the pool of eligible workers and costing billions of dollars. The crisis is rightly at the forefront of discussions surrounding public health and criminal justice in Maine and nationwide. But there is another intractable substance abuse problem that dates back much further — perhaps to shortly after the first alcoholic beverage was fermented thousands of years ago.

A new study examining 20 years of National Center for Health Statistics data found that alcohol consumption, alcohol-related emergency room visits, hospitalizations and deaths have all increased in the past two decades. The number of annual alcohol-related deaths among people over age 16 doubled from 35,914 to 72,558. Nearly 1 million Americans died of liver disease and other alcohol-related causes between 1999 and 2017. Many deaths were attributed to overdoses on alcohol alone or with other drugs. In 2017, 70 percent of the population aged 18 and older consumed alcohol, averaging approximately 3.6 gallons of pure alcohol per drinker.

In Maine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20.2 percent of adults age 18 and older binge drank in 2015 — the ninth highest rate among states. The estimated cost of excessive alcohol consumption in the state was pegged at $938.7 million. The calculation took into account expenses associated with accidents, falls, violence and alcohol poisoning.

For such a critical issue, excessive drinking, particularly that among older adults, isn’t talked about nearly enough. That has a lot to do with the fact that alcohol is legal and that it’s harder to know where the line is between preference and problem. Shooting up heroin is both illegal and a social taboo but having a few drinks at a party or after work doesn’t raise many eyebrows. When it happens night after night, there’s a big problem.

As a culture, we need to assess our relationship with alcohol. Too many of us have come to rely on it as a means to ease social interactions and counter the stresses of everyday life. Failing to adequately address issues such as mental health and poverty can increase rates of alcohol dependence. We also need to be cognizant about how we talk about and consume alcohol around children. A speech about the dangers of drinking will have nowhere near as much impact on a child’s behavior as years of observation of the grown-ups around them. An old problem demands new solutions.

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