Regional Health In Focus: Excessive Alcohol Use

Excessive alcohol use — which includes binge drinking, heavy drinking, alcohol dependence, underage drinking, and pregnant drinking — can lead to increased risk of health problems such as injuries, violence, liver diseases, and cancer. In the United States, excessive alcohol use accounts for roughly 88,000 deaths and causes almost $250 billion in economic costs each year.

excessive alcohol useNearly one in three American adults engages in some form of excessive drinking, yet only 10% of excessive drinkers are alcoholics or alcohol dependent.

Binge drinking, which occurs when one has several drinks in just a few hours, is the most common type of excessive drinking. In fact, more than one-quarter of adults under age 35 report binge drinking within the past 30 days.

Consequences of excessive alcohol use include:
  • Chronic diseases, including: cirrhosis, cancer, or heart disease
  • Poisonings
  • Birth defects
  • Mental health problems, including: increased risk of suicide, anxiety disorders, and major depressive episodes
  • Functional difficulties, such as poor hygiene or problems at work or school
  • Risky sexual behaviors
  • Accidental injuries and fatalities, including motor vehicle accidents
  • Violent injuries and fatalities, including domestic violence

Any alcohol consumption by pregnant women or those under age 21 can be dangerous because of its effect on brain development.

An unborn child exposed to alcohol during the mother’s pregnancy can develop fetal alcohol syndrome, a condition that may lead to physical defects, intellectual or cognitive disabilities, and problems functioning and coping with daily life.

Teens who drink alcohol can cause damage to nerve tissue in their brains, and those who binge drink may impair their ability to think clearly and recall memories, even after the effects of alcohol have worn off.

Local data:

According to the 2017 Community Health Survey, North Country residents commonly consume alcohol. In fact, approximately 2 out of 3 adults in Jefferson, Lewis, and St. Lawrence counties say they drink alcohol, and half of those adults say they drink it at least once or twice a month.

Binge drinking is a concern for our region, as 26% of North Country adults say they had at least 4 alcoholic drinks on one occasion in the past month — a rate significantly higher than the statewide average.

Between 2010 and 2016, more than 100 North Country residents died from complications related to alcoholic liver disease, which occurs after years of heavy drinking.

Alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents have also claimed lives in many of our region’s communities. Between 2009 and 2013, Lewis County had the second highest annual rate of drunk-driving-related deaths in New York State, with 8.08 deaths per 100,000 people — Jefferson County’s rate was 3.52, and St. Lawrence County’s was 3.59.

What can I do to take action?

Excessive alcohol use can be prevented or reduced through both individual and community action. There are also steps that doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals can take to address the issue.

For individuals...
• If you choose to drink alcohol, drink responsibly — and talk to your doctor about your drinking behaviors.
Do not drink when you are driving, planning to drive, or taking part in tasks that require coordination or alertness.
Do not drink at all if you are pregnant, under 21, unable to control how much you drink, or if you are taking medications that interact with alcohol.
• Talk to your teen their views on drinking, important facts, and good reasons not to drink. For tips on talking to your teen, check out the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s toolkit.
For communities…
• Improve access to, and raise awareness of, peer support groups and addiction recovery services.
• Develop community coalitions that strengthen partnerships between schools, law enforcement, health agencies, faith-based organizations and others to reduce excessive alcohol use.
• Adopt local laws to help address the problem — communities can regulate how many businesses are allowed to sell alcohol, increase alcohol excise taxes, place limits on days and hours when alcohol can be sold, and enforce laws that prohibit alcohol sales to minors.
For health care professionals…
• Provide patients with educational materials on alcohol use.
• Perform substance use screenings.
• Refer to peer support groups and other addiction recovery services as needed.
Drinker’s Check-up is a free, online educational intervention designed to help problem drinkers reduce their alcohol use and alcohol-related consequences. Healthcare professionals can use this tool with their patients to help them better understand their drinking habits, the risks involved with excessive drinking, and to begin reducing alcohol consumption.

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