It may not be surprising to learn that deaths caused by alcohol use in the United States spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic. As reported by CNN and others, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now reports that the death of more than 49,000 people in 2020 is directly related to alcohol consumption. Putting this number in perspective, Marvin Ventrell, chief executive officer of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers, asks a simple question: “What’s a word bigger than crisis? What was already a crisis, has exploded.”
“The alcohol-induced death rate has been steadily increasing in recent decades,” reports CNN’s Deidre McPhillips. “But it jumped 26% between 2019 and 2020 — making nearly the same climb in one year as over the decade before. In 2020, alcohol caused 13 deaths for every 100,000 people, up from 10.4 deaths for every 100,000 people in 2019.” It is also pointed out that the CDC breakdown does not include deaths where alcohol use may have directly contributed but was not the only factor.
The reason it should not be surprising to learn of this disturbing trend is that, in seeking ways to deal with stress, alcohol has always been an easy and readily available option. Many experts view it as one known potentially harmful substance with the least social stigma attached to it. The more access there is to a substance that is harmful, any substance, “the more harm it will create,” says Ventrell. When, according to the CDC findings, you add deaths attributable to excessive alcohol use but not directly caused by it, such as diseases like cancer and heart disease, or unintentional injuries like car accidents, the toll of alcohol-related deaths nearly triples.
I am not advocating teetotalism here. I am merely trying to point out that there are healthy ways to deal with stress and unhealthy ways. Too many Americans are choosing the wrong path here, and there is a cost to pay when you stumble and fall when traveling it. While the effects of alcohol abuse may be less immediate than other drugs, health experts remind us that they are no less devastating.
Consider a study recently published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. It reveals that the rate of strokes is increasing among people in their 20s and 30s, and alcohol consumption appears to have something to do with this development. Reports USA Today, the study revealed that “young people (in the study) who were considered moderate to heavy drinkers were more likely to have a stroke compared with those who were considered light drinkers or didn’t drink alcohol at all.”
Out of the 1.5 million young people participating in the study, over a course of six years, more than 3,150 had a stroke. “Researchers also found the risk of stroke increased with the number of years of moderate to heavy drinking,” reports USA Today’s Adrianna Rodriguez. According to a separate report by the American Heart Association, “strokes among people under 49 have been increasing over the past 30 years, particularly among people in the South and Midwest,” says Rodriguez.
Strokes can lead to cognitive, physical and social impairments to patients of any age. “You’re talking about someone who is in the prime of their life,” says Dr. Shazam Hussain, director of the Cerebrovascular Center at Cleveland Clinic, who’s not affiliated with the study. “The impact to their lives can be pretty profound.”
A study posted on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website, which explored cause-specific mortality risks when alcohol is combined with smoking, concluded that the cumulative effect was the riskiest behavior for all causes of death the study explored. I bring this to your attention because multiple studies have shown how one influences the other. As pointed out by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in a 1998 alert, the intake of either can have the effect of increasing the desired for the other.
“Reinforcement refers to the physiological processes by which a behavior — such as consumption of a drug — becomes habitual,” says the report. “Nicotine is the primary ingredient of tobacco that triggers reinforcement … Tolerance is decreased sensitivity to a given effect of a drug … Alcohol’s sedating effects may mitigate (aversive) effects of nicotine, facilitating continued tobacco use.”
“Smoking and excessive alcohol use are risk factors for cardiovascular and lung diseases and for some forms of cancer,” the report adds. “Compared with the risk for nonsmoking nondrinkers, the approximate relative risks for developing mouth and throat cancer are 38 times greater for those who use both tobacco and alcohol.”
There is this myth that seems to exist that Big Tobacco is on the run and that the smoking habit continues to dwindle in this country. As the CDC reminds us, cigarette smoking remains the leading cause of preventable disease, disability and death in the United States. Each day, about 1,600 youth in this country will try their first cigarette. In 2020, an estimated 30.8 million people were cigarette smokers. According to The New York Times, traditional cigarette sales in the U.S. in 2021 totaled $65 billion.
According to Times reporters Julie Creswell and Matt Richtel, while major tobacco industry executives publicly say they support the concept of a smoke-free future, the “tobacco giants are pushing back against any efforts to curb sales,” they report. “U.S. health officials have launched the most aggressive attack by far on cigarettes: Twin government proposals would ban menthol-flavored cigarettes and would limit nicotine levels to make traditional smoking less addictive … (In response) the companies have submitted letters protesting the proposed menthol ban in traditional cigarettes, and they have signaled they will similarly resist any efforts to lower nicotine levels.” It’s reported that one-third of its $65 billion in cigarette sales in 2021 was from menthol brands.
A day after voters overwhelmingly approved a California landmark ban on flavored tobacco, R.J. Reynolds, the maker of Newport menthol cigarettes and top-selling vaping products, filed a federal lawsuit challenging it. According to Creswell and Richtel, Big Tobacco had spent $22 million to try to persuade voters to reject the measure.