Alcohol Addiction and Mortality Rates Have Soared Since Pandemic

Ambulance in an alley

According to numerous sources including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and independent research papers, alcohol addiction and alcohol-related mortality are surging in the United States.

However, little effort has been made to change the prevailing narratives around alcohol. To this day, the general societal view of alcohol maintains that alcohol consumption is normal and accepted behavior as long as alcohol is not consumed “to excess.”

Given that alcohol is now a leading cause of preventable death and even “moderate” consumption is a risk factor for misuse and unwanted health outcomes, public health policy and messaging around alcohol should change.

Recent Statistics Paint a Dire Picture of American Alcohol Addiction

A recent research paper published in JAMA Network Open sought to determine the scope of alcohol-related harm in recent years. The researchers found that:

  • There were 343,384 alcohol-related deaths in the United States between 2012 and 2021.
  • By age group, 56,985 (16.6%) deaths were among adults ages 25 to 44. 192,346 (56%) deaths were among adults ages 45 to 64. 94,053 (27.4%) deaths were among adults over 65.
  • Approximately 77.7% of the deaths were among men (266,755 deaths).
drunk man at home
  • Mortality rates surged most predominantly during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, alcohol-related mortality increased by 24.79%. In 2021, mortality increased again, this time by 21.95%.
  • According to the data, the youngest age group (25 to 44) demonstrated the largest increase in alcohol-related mortality. In 2020, alcohol-related deaths spiked by 40.47% in this age group. Deaths spiked again in 2021, by 33.95%.

Also of concern, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recently updated its assessment of annual alcohol-related fatalities. As of March 2022, the NIAAA now reports that approximately 95,000 Americans lose their lives to alcohol every year, up from 88,000 in previous years. This officially makes alcohol the third-leading cause of preventable deaths after tobacco consumption and poor diet/lack of physical activity.

Finally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently updated their assessment of alcohol’s toll on human lives across America. According to CDC data:

  • Excessive alcohol consumption shortens the lifespan of users by an average of 26 years.
  • Alcohol consumption is responsible for some 140,000 deaths annually, or one in ten deaths among working-age Americans.
  • Alcohol consumption is responsible for $249 billion in economic costs annually, or $2.05 per drink.
Unconscious woman at the party

The CDC places most of its focus on binge drinking and other forms of excessive consumption. To that point, the CDC reported that 40% of alcohol-related deaths are due to binge drinking, even though binge drinkers make up a small minority of the total number of people who consume alcohol. However, CDC data does not highlight the fact that a large percentage of alcohol-related harm comes from individuals who do not drink to excess.

“Excessive” alcohol consumption is still considered four or more drinks on one occasion for a woman and five or more for a man. But if a great deal of the harm caused by alcohol occurs among people who do not drink excessively, isn’t it time to adjust the messaging around alcohol to say that any form of alcohol consumption can be harmful?

Alcohol Addiction and Other National Emergencies

Alcohol-related fatalities are higher than deaths from opioids. In fact, alcohol-related deaths are higher than deaths from all other drugs combined. (The CDC report of 140,000 alcohol-related fatalities in one year outstrips the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s report of 91,799 drug-related fatalities in one year).

Yet while opioid drug addiction has been accurately labeled a National Public Health Emergency numerous times and is treated as such by public health officials and media organizations, little has been said about alcohol addiction, an epidemic that is well deserving of the National Public Health Emergency label.

A Need for Change in How America Talks About Alcohol

Where is the public outrage, around-the-clock media coverage, policy efforts, and National Public Health Emergency label for alcohol addiction? As early as 2016, some public health officials like the United States Surgeon General did begin ringing alarm bells about the growing epidemic nature of alcohol consumption in America. But sadly, alcohol use has become so normalized in American culture that most people don’t seem to have the same shock response to six-figure alcohol deaths as they do to six-figure drug deaths.

Given that alcohol is legal and is a multi-billion-dollar-per-year industry that stands to benefit American alcohol corporations and their investors, there seems to be little incentive to treat the alcohol epidemic in the same way as the drug epidemic. Yet until that narrative changes, tens of thousands of Americans will continue to lose their lives to preventable alcohol-related causes.

It’s not just excessive alcohol use that is dangerous. Americans must adopt a different view of alcohol consumption, one that sees any degree of alcohol consumption as carrying serious health risks.

Sources Cited:

  • JAMA. “Evaluation of Trends in Alcohol Use Disorder–Related Mortality in the US Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” JAMA Network Open, 2022.
  • NIAAA. “Alcohol Use in the United States.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2022.
  • CDC. “Excessive Alcohol Use.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022.
  • NIDA. “Overdose Death Rates.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2022.
  • PHE. “Public Health Emergency Declarations.” Public Health Emergency, 2022.
  • NCBI. “Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2016.

Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC


Editorial Staff