The “opioid epidemic” continues to be the weight quietly sitting on the shoulders of the US. However, a dramatic rise in dangerously heavy drinking across the country suggests that alcoholism could be a new epidemic hiding in plain sight.
Latest figures show that 12.7 percent of people living in the US have some kind of alcohol-related disorder. That’s nearly one in eight people. These numbers have also increased by almost 50 percent compared to the previous decade, suggesting that the problem is on a sharp rise.
The statistics come from a study, recently published in JAMA Psychiatry, that compared the rates of alcoholism, alcohol use, and binge drinking between 2001 to 2002 and 2012 to 2013 in two surveys of 43,000 people and then 36,000 people, respectively.
Between 2001-2002 and 2012-2013, the number of people who drank alcohol (both problematically or casually) rose by 11.2 percent to 72.7 percent of the population.
Just under a third of people in the US indulge in “high-risk” binge drinking. In keeping with the US dietary guidelines, this was defined as drinking five or more standard drinks for men, or four drinks for women, on any day at least once a week. The rise in binge drinking was particularly noticeable among women (up 57.9 percent over the decade), elderly people, Hispanics, and African-Americans.
The study makes a “compelling case that the United States is facing a crisis with alcohol use, one that is currently costly and about to get worse,” according to one of the study's authors, Professor Marc A Schuckit of the University of California, San Diego, writing in an editorial statement about the study.
Obviously, it is a massive risk to public health. Alcohol in excess is strongly associated with numerous types of cancer, cardiovascular disease, strokes, liver cirrhosis, and type 2 diabetes, to name but a few. In total it could cost the US economy upwards of $250 billion a year.
The reasons behind these increases were not explored by the study, however, the researchers suspect it's likely to be "historically rooted in racial discrimination and persistent socioeconomic disadvantage both at the individual and community levels."
It's not likely to get better soon, either. "The proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health budget being considered in Washington in 2017 are potentially disastrous for future efforts to decrease alcohol problems and are likely to result in higher costs for us all,” said Professor Schuckit.
“If the proposed budget prevails, the National Institutes of Health will have serious problems keeping current research going, and it will be difficult or even impossible to fund new research. In addition, most of the problems raised here will escalate further if as many as 23 million people lose health care.”