Alcohol use is heavily ingrained in the American way of life.
Easy access to beer, wine and liquor can be found in nearly any grocery store, convenience shop or in a number of alcohol specialty outlets. However, alcohol-related health problems and accidents are some the leading causes of death in the United States. While Americans are not the biggest consumers of alcohol in the world, we do seem to have one of the most dysfunctional relationships with this intoxicant.
Alcohol statistics and new studies are showing just how unbalanced our relationship with alcohol has become.
Alcohol Abuse & the Underage Drinker
While the federally mandated legal age for purchase and consumption of alcohol is 21, millions of adolescents and young adults begin drinking long before they reach this age. The younger a person begins drinking, the more predisposed they become to developing an addiction or exploring other drugs. Some startling statistics concerning underage drinking include:
- Alcohol is a contributing factor in the top 3 causes of death, murder, suicide and accidents, in those aged 15-24
- Underage drinkers are nearly 8 times more likely to use illegal drugs
- Almost 7 percent of kids 12 years and older start binge drinking every year
Aside from putting youth at risk for physical injury or death, early alcohol use also negatively impacts a young person’s development and psychological health. Alcohol’s effects on the body and development are being studied at length. Kids who drink usually have more problems in their lives than those who do not, such as:
- Academic problems
- Emotional disturbances
- Loss of friends and social isolation
- Less engagement with extra-curricular groups and activities
- Engaging in risky behaviors
- Higher risk of being assaulted
Despite the well-known dangers of underage alcohol consumption, the U.S. still struggles with effective prevention to keep alcohol away from kids. While the drinking rates of adolescents have actually declined over the past decade, over 10 percent of all 12-18 year old students still engage in risky drinking behaviors.
Alcohol and the State of Public Health
Even if an individual doesn’t begin drinking until they reach the legal age, alcohol still poses a huge threat to public health and safety. As a nation that is attempting to reinvent our healthcare system, we face a large challenge in terms of alcohol-related costs and burdens on hospitals, such as:
- Creating an annual healthcare cost that tops $22 billion
- Creating a base of patients responsible for 25-40 percent of hospital admissions
- Putting children of alcoholics at a 60 percent higher risk of being hospitalized than children of non-drinkers
Overburdening an already over-taxed hospital system hurts everyone. Doctors and nurses must divert their attention to drinking-related health problems and trauma, while hospitals are overcrowded due to drinking-related admissions. When healthcare providers are overburdened by these problems, there is decreased community access to healthcare, lowered quality of services provided and overall price increases for all patients.
Alcohol and Public Safety
Opening a bottle of beer is almost akin to opening a Pandora’s box filled with potentially fatal accidents. People who drink put themselves and others at a higher risk for experiencing injury, trauma or even death:
- Over 5,000 people are killed every year from drunk driving crashes
- Nearly half a million people are seriously injured in drunk driving crashes
- About 80 percent of violent criminal offenses involve alcohol
- Nearly half of all child abuse cases cite alcohol as a component
- Alcohol is a consumed in over 75 percent of assault and rape cases
- Alcohol plays a role in over half of all domestic abuse cases
Clearly, alcohol abuse puts everyone at risk. Instances of violent crimes, sexual assault and child abuse are all increased by the misuse of alcohol, hurting some of the United States’ youngest and most vulnerable populations.
Alcohol Abuse & Mental Health
Substance abuse and mental health problems are often experienced concurrently. While many alcoholics drink in a misguided attempt to self-medicate themselves and relieve symptoms of mental illness, drinking actually compounds their issues. Once a certain threshold is passed, even moderate drinking becomes harmful to the body and mind.
Alcohol abuse may predispose otherwise healthy individuals to developing a mental health issue, such as depression, panic disorders or anxiety. Users of alcohol commonly experience mental illness, as is evidenced by the following information:
- About 40 percent of alcohol abusers suffer from a serious mental illness, such as clinical depression or a mood disorder
- People with panic or depression problems are 4 times as likely to drink
- About 1/3 of all alcoholics also suffer from a mood disorder
- Alcohol may contribute to the development of mental illness, with over 70 percent of alcoholics stating that their drinking preceded symptoms of mental illness
Alcohol abuse further isolates individuals with mental health issues, often prolonging the time they suffer before accessing appropriate treatment.
Prevention of Alcohol Abuse in the United States
The U.S. has had a troubled past with alcohol, and it is clear from the lessons learned during the Prohibition era that eliminating legitimate access to intoxicants doesn’t prevent abuse. As a country, we must focus heavily upon education and prevention efforts in order to help save communities, families and individuals from the damaging effects of alcohol.
Hopefully, laws and public health agencies will continue to evolve in order to deal with the consequences of alcohol abuse with increasingly proactive and constructive techniques.