The following editorial appeared in the Rochester Post-Bulletin.
Most of us don’t give it a second thought if we stop for a beer after work or attend a party where drinks are served.
After all, because alcohol is safe in moderation and at the center of a multibillion-dollar industry that markets beer, wine, spirits and alcopops, we give it something of a pass, unless we have a friend or relative struggling with addiction.
That’s what makes a survey published last week so noteworthy. Problem drinking affects nearly 33 million adults, or 14 percent of the population, and most have never sought treatment, according to a report published in the JAMA Psychiatry journal.
Take that in for a moment. Look around your workplace or the next party you attend. One in seven people there probably meet the definition of a problem drinker, making it more pervasive and less frequently treated than previously thought. Many problem drinkers are holding jobs and functioning for the most part, but it doesn’t mean they and their families are not suffering.
“That’s a lot — 14 percent of adults,” said Abby Larson, a health educator at Olmsted County Public Health. “And most people aren’t going to think that’s the case. It’s really just a social norm. People feel like alcohol is acceptable, that it’s not a drug. I bet if you ask people, most of them will say that alcohol is not a drug.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says alcohol abuse is the third-leading preventable cause of death after smoking and obesity. The CDC says alcohol is directly related to 88,000 deaths each year as a contributing factor to cirrhosis, esophageal cancer, overdose, homicide and other causes of premature deaths.
“It would help if community events or family gatherings didn’t always have a need to have alcohol present,” said Larson, whose work focuses on underage drinking. “Maybe they don’t realize that someone might have an issue with alcohol or someone is there who is recovering.”
The survey is the first estimate based on a new term, “alcohol use disorder,” in a widely used handbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, that was updated in 2013. The handbook, considered the authoritative reference for mental disorders, used to divide alcohol use disorder into two categories, alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, but the new definition eliminated the categories. Instead, it evaluates alcohol use disorder using a spectrum, ranging from mild to severe.
Researchers from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which already has a “Rethinking Drinking” campaign underway, surveyed adults during 2012 and 2013 about their lifetime drinking habits. About 14 percent of adults were current or recent problem drinkers, and 30 percent had been at some point in their lives.
Using the previous definition for problem drinkers, the rates were 14 percent for current or recent problem drinking and 44 percent for lifetime prevalence — up from 9 percent and 30 percent in the agency’s 2001-02 survey. The researchers didn’t provide an explanation why problem drinking has increased, but it was clear denial and stigma were the factors keeping people from seeking treatment.
“There may be options, but a lot of times insurance companies don’t cover it, or there are other barriers or roadblocks for people to seek help,” Larson said. “And it’s something that not widely publicized because of the stigma.”
Maybe we can’t do much about a someone’s denial about problem drinking, but we can lend a hand in eliminating the stigma.
We can remind them that they’re not alone. There are 33 million Americans just like them.
Reprinted with permission.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.)