OAKTON, Va. – The last time lawyer Erika Byrd talked her way out of an alcohol rehab center, her father took her to lunch.
“Dad, I know what alcohol has done to me,” she told him that day in January 2011. “I know what it has made me do to you and mom. But that wasn’t me.”
By the time she died three months later, Byrd had blocked her parents’ calls because they kept having her involuntarily committed. They once had a magistrate judge hold a hearing at her hospital bed. He ordered herto undergo a month of in-patient treatment.
Byrd, who died in April 2011 at the age of 42, is among the rising number of people in the United States who have been killed by alcohol in the last decade.
It’s an increase that has been obscured by the opioid epidemic. But alcohol kills more people each year than overdoses – through cancer, liver cirrhosis, pancreatitis and suicide, among other ways.
From 2007 to 2017, the number of deaths attributable to alcohol increased 35 percent, according to a new analysis by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. The death rate rose 24 percent.
One alarming statistic: Deaths among women rose 67 percent. Women once drank far less than men, and their more moderate drinking helped prevent heart disease, offsetting some of the harm.
Deaths among men rose 29 percent.
While teen deaths from drinking were down about 16 percent during the same period, deaths among people aged 45 to 64 rose by about a quarter.
People’s risk of dying, of course, increases as they age. What’s new is that alcohol is increasingly the cause.
“The story is that no one has noticed this,” says Max Griswold, who helped develop the alcohol estimates for the institute. “It hasn’t really been researched before.”
The District of Columbia, less than 10 miles away from the Venable law office where Byrd was a partner, had the highest rate of death from alcohol in the country, according to the institute’s analysis. Georgia and Alabama came in second and third.
Alabama, in fact, ranked third among states with the strongest alcohol control policies, as rated by medical researchers in a 2014 report published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
States can influence drinking – especially dangerous binge drinking – with policies such as taxes on alcohol and restrictions on where and when it can be sold.
Psychologist Benjamin Miller, chief strategy officer at the nonprofit Well Being Trust, says the larger health challenges in the South are to blame for high alcohol death rates. Southern states typically rank near the bottom in national rankings in cancer, cardiovascular disease and overall health.
Oklahoma, Utah, Kansas and Tennessee rounded out the five states with the strongest alcohol control policies, the researchers reported. States with more stringent alcohol control policies had lower rates of binge drinking, they found.
Nevada, South Dakota, Iowa, Wyoming and Wisconsin had the weakest alcohol control policies.
David Jernigan, a professor at Boston University’s school of public health who has specialized in alcohol research for 30 years, notes that the beer industry holds considerable sway in Wisconsin.
Binge drinking is sending far more people to the emergency room, a separate team of researchers reported in the February 2018 issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
The researchers, who looked at ER visits from 2006 to 2014,found the largest increases were among the middle aged – especially women. The number of teenage binge drinkers landing in the ER during that time actually declined.
Older, often lifelong drinkers don’t need only to have their stomachs pumped. They frequently have multiple complications from their drinking.
Their often bulbous bellies need to be drained of fluid, which builds up from liver cirrhosis, and their lungs cleared of aspirated vomit, says Dr. Anthony Marchetti, an emergency room doctor at Upson Regional Medical Center in Thomaston, Georgia.
They might also have brain hemorrhages or internal bleeding, because booze prevents their blood from clotting properly.
By middle age, Marchetti says, long-term drinking can also lead to heart failure, infections due to immune suppression, a type of dementia from alcohol-induced brain damage, stomach ulcers and a much higher risk of cancer.
As opioid overdoses, which kill about 72,000 people a year, grabbed America’s attention, the slower moving epidemic of alcohol accelerated, especially in Southern states and the nation’s capital. About 88,000 people die each year from alcohol.
Making matters worse, alcoholism is trickier to treat – and criticize – than opioid addiction.
“Culturally, we’ve made it acceptable to drink but not to go out and shoot up heroin,” Miller says. “A lot of people will read this and say ‘What’s the problem?’ “