glasses of beer
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
April 1, 2024 ·  6 min read

Alcohol Is Killing More People Than The Opioid Epidemic. So Why Aren’t We Talking About It?

The opioid crisis in America has been garnering a lot of attention in the media over the last few years, and rightfully so- according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of deaths from opioid overdose in 2021 was 106,699. [1].

Yes, this is a real problem that needs to be solved. But is it possible that one crisis is overshadowing another, even larger problem? In one word, yes. Alcohol is killing more people every year in America than opioids, and yet no one seems to be talking about it [2].

Alcohol Abuse in America

A report published by the CDC stated that every year approximately 88 thousand people die from alcohol-related causes in the United States [3]. This makes alcohol the third leading cause of death in America, behind tobacco and poor lifestyle [4].

A survey found that over 15 000 people aged eighteen and older reported having an alcohol-use disorder. Conversely, the number of people who reported having an illicit drug-use disorder was just under seven thousand [5].

The number of deaths related to illicit drug use in 2017 was recorded at just over seventy thousand [1]. Of course, this number is still alarming, but it stands to reason that if the number of alcohol-related deaths is much higher, this problem should at the very least be treated with similar levels of concern.

The Health Effects of Alcohol

A cold beer at the end of the day or a glass of wine with dinner can be a nice way to wind down. For may, alcohol is a “social lubricant”, and helps to de-stress and relax. When consumed moderately, alcohol can be a part of a healthy lifestyle, but when consumed in excess, it can lead to a laundry list of health complications.

  1. Your heart. Drinking a lot over a long period of time, or even simply drinking too much on a single occasion can cause damage to your heart, including cardiomyopathy (when the muscles in your heart stretch and droop), arrhythmias (aka- an irregular heartbeat), strokes, and high blood pressure [6].
  2. Your liver. Heavy drinking can inflame your liver and cause issues such as fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis [6].
  3. Your pancreas. Alcohol causes your pancreas to make toxic substances that can lead to pancreatitis, which is when the blood vessels in the pancreas reach a dangerous level of inflammation and swelling, which prevents proper digestion [6].
  4. Cancer. Excessive alcohol consumption is a risk factor for many different types of cancer including head and neck cancer, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, and colorectal cancer [6].
  5. Your immune system. Drinking too much alcohol can weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to infections and diseases. Even drinking a lot on one single occasion can slow your body’s ability to fight off infections for up to 24 hours [6].

How Much is Too Much?

The NIAAA defines binge drinking as drinking enough to bring your blood alcohol concentration to 0.08g/dL, which is about four drinks for women and five drinks for men in a span of 2 hours [7].

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), defines heavy alcohol use as binge drinking on five our more days out of the past month [8].

Alcohol in Society

This issue with talking about alcohol abuse is that drinking is much more acceptable, and is often encouraged, in our society. It is advertised to us as being the “cool” thing to do, and is made out to be a very glamorous activity in movies and tv shows. 

What’s more, it is legal, and generates a lot of money. In 2018, the sale of beer, wine, and spirits totalled almost 74 billion dollars in profit [9].

The 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 86.3 percent of Americans over the age of eighteen had drank alcohol at least once in their lifetime, seventy percent in the last year, and fifty-five percent in the last month [10]. 

All of this data supports the notion that alcohol is highly integrated into our society and culture. Many of our celebrations, traditions, and holidays involve drinking. Going out for beers with friends on the weekend is habitual, and meeting for a drink is a natural option for a first date. It is perhaps, then, it’s commonplace nature that often allows alcohol abuse to go undetected. A drug overdose is a big deal that receives a lot of attention, but having a few drinks too many just describes a typical Saturday night.

5 Early Signs That You May Have an Alcohol Problem

It is easy for an alcohol problem to go unnoticed. You might even exhibit some signs of alcohol abuse and not even realize it. It is important that you pay attention to your own relationship with alcohol to avoid running into problems. Here are some warning signs that you might have an unhealthy relationship with drinking:

  1. You drink more than you planned. Sometimes you go to a party or out with friends and you end up drinking more than you thought you would. This may seem harmless if it only happens once in a while, but it could also be an early sign that you have a difficult time controlling yourself while drinking. This is something to be aware of, especially if you notice it starts to happen with more frequency [11].
  2. Your tolerance has gone up. Maybe you used to start feeling a buzz after two or three drinks, and now you require four or five to get the same effect. Your brain becomes less affected by alcohol over time, so this could be a warning that you’re over-consuming [11].
  3. You give up other activities. Do you other things for fun other than drink? If drinking has started to take precedence over those activities, it may be time for a change [11].
  4. It’s negatively impacting your life. If you’re showing up to work hungover, missing deadlines or are behind on schoolwork because of drinking, your alcohol consumption has become a problem [11].
  5. It affects your relationships. If your drinking has led to problems with family and friends, it may be time you reached out for some help [11].

Changing the Conversation

Without question, America has an alcohol problem. Because drinking, and even binge drinking, is so acceptable in our society, it is a difficult problem to tackle. It is important that within our social circles we change the conversations we’re having surrounding alcohol.

When one of your friends says “no thanks, I’m not drinking tonight”, it is important not to pressure them into changing their mind. Peer pressure, whether it is overt or not, can play a significant role in influencing people to drink [12].

If you’re trying to cut back on the amount you drink, or trying to help a friend or loved one decrease their alcohol consumption, consider planning activities that don’t involve alcohol. Going on hikes, seeing movies, taking a yoga class or an art class are all examples of alcohol-free activities that can be enjoyed with friends. If you’re going to a party and you do not plan on drinking, consider bringing a non-alcoholic beverage with you. Having something to sip on will make you feel less awkward, and will prevent other people from asking you why you aren’t drinking.

Our culture has made it seem like it is impossible to have fun without drinking, but changing this narrative will go a long way in reducing the negative impact it is having on our society.