Alcohol-related deaths have more than doubled over past 20 years in US, study finds

Americans are drinking more booze, and the result has meant more alcohol-related emergency room visits and more funerals, according to a new study.

Researchers estimate that alcohol-related deaths in the United States have more than doubled over the past 20 years, based on an analysis of death certificates from 1999 to 2017.

In 1999, the number of death certificates mentioning alcohol was 35,914. That number jumped to nearly 73,000 in 2017 — the year in which alcohol played a role in 2.6 percent of all deaths in the U.S.

A file image dated Oct. 19, 2017 shows a bartender pouring shots of liquor into an ice-filled glasses on a bar. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

The study was conducted by researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health. It was published Wednesday in the online journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

The increase in alcohol-related deaths was consistent with reports of increases in alcohol consumption and alcohol-related hospitalizations during the same period, researchers found.

In the study, a death was identified as alcohol-related if an alcohol-induced cause was listed as the underlying cause or as a contributing cause of death. Researchers found that nearly half of all alcohol-related deaths in 2017 were from liver disease or overdoses on alcohol alone or with other drugs.

Alcohol-related deaths increased more for women (85 percent) over the past two decades than men (35 percent), the study found. 

The findings come amid a growing body of evidence that even one drink per day of alcohol can contribute to an increase in the risk of breast cancer for women, according to the National Institutes of Health. 

“Alcohol is a growing women’s health issue,” said NIAAA Director Dr. George F. Koob. “The rapid increase in deaths involving alcohol among women is troubling and parallels the increases in alcohol consumption among women over the past few decades.”

People aged 45 to 74 had the highest rates of deaths related to alcohol during the study period. And high rates among middle-aged adults were consistent with recent reports of increases in “deaths of despair,” generally defined as deaths by suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, and alcoholic liver disease and cirrhosis — primarily among non-Hispanic white people. 

Furthermore, the research shows that alcohol led to more deaths than drugs in 2017. 

About 70,000 people died from drug overdose deaths in the U.S. that year, including 47,600 from opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That was about 2,300 less than those from alcohol in the same year.

“Alcohol is not a benign substance and there are many ways it can contribute to mortality,” said Koob. “The current findings suggest that alcohol-related deaths involving injuries, overdoses and chronic diseases are increasing across a wide swath of the population. The report is a wake-up call to the growing threat alcohol poses to public health.”

The study noted that the role of alcohol in deaths has been vastly underreported — and the actual number of alcohol-related deaths in 2017 may be far greater than the number determined by researchers. 

“We know that the contribution of alcohol often fails to make it onto death certificates,” Koob added. “Better surveillance of alcohol involvement in mortality is essential in order to better understand and address the impact of alcohol on public health.”

This story was reported from Cincinnati.