UW Today

This is an archived article.

August 9, 2004

Binge drinking, harmful drinking linked to U.S. death rates

Binge drinking and harmful drinking, including both medium to high levels of regular alcohol consumption, account for a substantial number of deaths each year in the United States. Prevention of this underlying cause of mortality must be a public health priority, according to researchers at the University of Washington (UW) who conducted the study.

“Mortality Attributable to Harmful Drinking in the United States, 2000″ was published in the July issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol.

Although alcohol has been associated with death from a variety of causes, there had been no recent studies on the numbers of deaths in the U.S. attributable to harmful alcohol use. The investigators estimated the prevalence of alcohol use from the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service’s National Household Survey on Drug Abuse.

An estimated 63,718 deaths were attributable to harmful drinking in the U.S. in 2000. Of these deaths, 45,988 were to males (4 percent of all deaths among males) and 17,730 were to females (1.5 percent of all deaths among females).

Heavy episodic drinking (binge drinking) has been defined as five or more drinks per occasion, with a drink equaling 10 grams of alcohol. Motor vehicle crashes were the most frequent cause of death for binge drinkers. Among men, the other common causes of death were homicide, suicide, alcohol poisoning and drowning, and for women, homicide, hemorrhagic stroke, alcohol poisoning and suicide.

For the purposes of this study, a medium level of regular drinking was defined as 4-6 drinks a day for men and 2-4 drinks a day for women, and a high level defined as more than 6 drinks for men and more than 4 drinks for women. Alcohol liver cirrhosis, hemorrhagic stroke, alcoholic psychoses and suicide were the most frequent causes of death for these groups.

The method used by the UW investigators to estimate the number of deaths attributable to harmful drinking is the same method that the CDC has used to calculate deaths than can be attributed to smoking. The study is the first to estimate the number of deaths in the U.S attributable to alcohol since a CDC study in 1990 based on deaths in 1987.

“While the number of deaths due to alcohol in our study, nearly 64,000, is considerably less than the 105,095 calculated by the CDC for 1987, these deaths are still a cause for concern and a call to action,” says Dr. Frederick Rivara, a UW professor of pediatrics and adjunct professor of epidemiology, and principal investigator for the study. “In contrast to many other causes of death, deaths from alcohol are due to preventable, high-risk behaviors. Previous studies have shown that family- and community-based interventions can have an impact on youth drinking, and brief interventions in clinical settings have been shown to be effective in reducing harmful drinking by adults. Research also shows that raising the taxes on alcohol has the potential to reduce harmful drinking.”

In addition to Rivara, the study was conducted by Michelle Garrison, M.P.H., research consultant; Dr. Beth Ebel, assistant professor of pediatrics; Carolyn McCarty, Ph.D., research assistant professor; and Dr. Dimitri Christakis, associate professor of pediatrics; all of the University of Washington.