By Jennifer R. Maguire, MA, MS, LPC, ACS, CCS, Executive & Clinical Director, New Life Counseling in Keyport, NJ, an intensive outpatient and partial hospitalization program of Pinnacle Treatment Centers
The opioid crisis holds the attention of most Americans – and rightly so – but there’s another substance use problem in the United States that’s been around much longer – and it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. In fact, it’s getting worse.
While overdose deaths related to prescription and illicit opioids increased at dramatic and alarming rates over the past 10 years, there’s something most people don’t know. Alcohol-related deaths account for almost twice as many deaths per year than opioid overdose deaths.
That may come as a surprise, but the statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA), and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) say:
- In 2017, opioid overdose resulted in 47,600 deaths
- Between 2007 and 2017, alcohol-related deaths (updated 2023) averaged 88,000 per year – 46% more than opioid overdose deaths in 2017
- Alcohol-related deaths among men averaged 62,000 per year
- Alcohol-related deaths among women averaged 26,000 per year
- Between 2008 and 2017, alcohol-related driving fatalities averaged more than 10,000 per year; that’s about 30% of all driving fatalities each year
To put these statistics into context, tobacco causes the most preventable deaths each year (~480,000), a combination of poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle causes the second most preventable deaths each year (~365,000), and alcohol causes the third most preventable deaths each year (~88,000).
It’s critical to keep our attention on the opioid crisis, because, among other things, the rate of increase of opioid related deaths outpaces that of alcohol. But in terms of sheer numbers, we can’t forget that millions of Americans struggle every day with problem drinking. It’s a slower, quieter, and less dramatic problem than our current opioid crisis, compounded by the fact that drinking alcohol is a culturally accepted recreational activity common across almost all areas of our social lives.
Problem Drinking in the US: Facts and Figures
As bad as the opioid crisis is, it is important to understand that those who are fighting alcohol-related addictions also suffer. Their families and friends suffer. The entire country suffers. The economic burden of excessive alcohol use in the U.S. is staggering: in 2010, the latest year for which this data exists, the CDC placed the cost of problem alcohol use at $249 billion dollars.
Yes, that’s billion with a “b.”
There’s no way to truly quantify the human cost or the pain and suffering caused by prolonged alcohol addiction though. What we can do is offer solid facts and figures on the number of people in the U.S. who meet the clinical criteria for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).
The NIAA defines an AUD as:
“…a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. AUD can range from mild to severe, and recovery is possible regardless of severity.”
Here are the latest statistics on AUD prevalence in the U.S.:
- Adults (18+): 15.1 million total
- 8 million men
- 3 million women
- Adolescents (12-17): 623,000 total
- 298,000 males
- 325,000 females
There’s another fact hidden behind these numbers we want you to know – the number of people who meet the criteria for an AUD who seek treatment – but first, we want to make sure we’re all on the same page when we talk about what constitutes typical drinking, what constitutes problem drinking, and what type of drinking places an individual at risk of developing an AUD.
Types of Drinking Defined
Alcohol affects different people in different ways, depending on a variety of factors: height, weight, gender, genetics, metabolism, and others. Despite these potential variations, the NIAA and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) have clear criteria that help addiction professionals and laypeople alike determine which category of alcohol consumption an individual falls into.
Moderate Alcohol Consumption
- SAMSHA and NIAA define moderate consumption as 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men.
- NIAAA defines binge drinking as a pattern of consumption that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) up to 0.08 g/dl. That means:
- Around 4 drinks in about 2 hours for women
- Around 5 drinks in about 2 hours for men
- SAMHSA defines binge drinking as drinking 5 or more alcoholic beverages on the same occasion on at least 1 day in the past 30 days.
- SAMHSA defines heavy drinking as binge drinking on each of 5 or more days in the past 30 days
Risk of Developing an Alcohol Use Disorder
Data from the NIAA shows that people who have low risk for developing an AUD consume alcohol within the following limits:
- 3 drinks on any single day and no more than 7 drinks per week (women)
- 4 drinks on any single day and no more than 14 drinks per week (men)
People who drink more than what’s considered moderate consumption or more than what’s defined as low risk for developing an AUD should compare their drinking to the criteria above, give themselves an honest assessment, and ask themselves:
“Am I at risk of developing an alcohol use disorder?”
Please understand this blog cannot diagnose an alcohol use disorder: only a medical professional can do that. The information above offers useful criteria for placing drinking habits in context and allows individuals to understand their consumption in the same language clinical experts use when discussing alcohol and substance use disorders.
With that said, here’s a rule of thumb: if you’ve ever thought you drink too much or might have a problem with alcohol, follow up on that thought. Talk to a professional. Get a real assessment and decide how to manage your alcohol consumption in order to keep it within healthy parameters.
Now, about that hidden fact.
The Treatment Gap
We hinted at it above.
We’re ready to give you the one set of statistics that’s the most alarming of all those related to alcohol consumption in the U.S.:
- Only 6.7% of adults with an AUD received treatment for their AUD
- 7.4% of men
- 5.4% of women
- Only 5.2% of adolescents (12-17) with an AUD received treatment for their AUD
- 5.1% of males
- 5.3% of females
In raw numbers, this means that of the 15.1 million adults with an AUD, only about one million got treatment. And of the 623,000 adolescents with an AUD, only about 30,000 got treatment. That leaves more than 14 million adults and more than half a million adolescents struggling with an untreated, potentially relapsing disease. That bears repeating:
14.5 million Americans are not getting the help they need for a disease that’s related to 88,000 preventable deaths a year.
That gap is far too large. And it needs to be addressed. Not only because living with addiction is psychologically and emotionally debilitating for both the addict and their loved ones, but also because excessive alcohol use leads to a host of other problems. The CDC indicates that excessive alcohol consumption increases likelihood of:
1. Chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, some cancers, heart disease, stroke, and liver disease.
2. Risky sexual behavior which can result in unintended pregnancy, HIV infection, and other sexually transmitted diseases.
3. Injury and death due to motor vehicle crashes.
4. Violence, injury, and/or death due to intimate partner violence, sexual assault, suicide, drowning, and other alcohol-related accidents.
Closing the Treatment Gap
As we work to erase the stigma around addiction in general through education, awareness, and open, honest dialogue, it’s also important to recognize that in doing so, we’re working to improve – and in some cases, save – the lives of millions of Americans. The mission is not abstract. The people we’re talking about are our family members, our co-workers, and our friends. They’re our neighbors and the people we see at the grocery store.
They’re all of us.
Misuse of alcohol affects everyone, and when we help people struggling with an alcohol use disorder, we help our society and culture as a whole. It’s part of making the world a better place to live, not just for ourselves, but for everyone.