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Alcohol abuse is major killer across the world -- and in Alaska

Doug O'Harra
Alaska Dispatch file art

Alcohol abuse and related health problems kill 2.5 million people across the world each year — almost 4 percent of all deaths. That's more than the toll from HIV/AIDs, tuberculosis or malaria, according to a new commentary in published this week in Nature

As a result, the World Health Organization should consider taking action to reduce drinking with a new binding international treaty similar to United Nations conventions requiring reporting of diseases and reducing tobacco use , wrote global health expert Devi Sridhar, of the Wolfson College in the University of Oxford. 

“Now is the time for the WHO to take a bold step and move towards a third treaty to protect world health,” Sridhar said. “Alcohol consumption is the world’s third-largest risk factor for health; in middle-income countries, which constitute almost half of the world’s population, it is the greatest risk.”

Alaskans should take note. The month-by-month drumbeat of murders, injuries, vehicle crashes, hypothermia deaths and drownings triggered by people overcome with drink is a familiar dirge across the state, so common that most news stories about the week’s current casualties become news briefs.

Alcohol abuse fuels our homegrown epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault and also contributes to the state’s high rate suicide, according to state health officials and police. More details can be found here and here. Alcohol induced deaths — where alcohol abuse leads to fatal health problems — is three times the national average in Alaska.

About 37 percent of all crimes investigated by the Alaska State Troopers in 2010 involved alcohol or illegal drugs, with substance abuse a factor in almost 62 percent of violent crimes, according to the 2010 annual report. Inside Anchorage, alcohol was a factor in 55 percent of all assaults and almost half of sexual assaults, say the most recent crime stats posted online by the city police. About half of recent fatal traffic accidents involved impaired drivers.

Sometimes it’s a matter of scale. For instance, Alaska contributed only about $217 million to the $68 billion that underage drinking costs the United States as a whole, according to a UAA Justice Center report. But Alaska’s per-youth cost was the highest in the country — $4,393 versus a national average of $2,378. Only the District of Columbia, at $3,958 per kid, came within 10 percent of Alaska’s cost.

Heavy alcohol use was also common theme among adults arrested by Anchorage police, according to an early 2000s survey cited by another UAA Justice Center report.

“Between 80 and 90 percent of jailed adults in Anchorage report having engaged in heavy drinking at least once, with more than half having done so within 30 days of their present offense,” wrote justice center research associate Brad Myrstol here.

“While these findings do not establish a clear causal link between alcohol consumption and criminal behavior, they do reveal the extent to which alcohol pervades the lives of the people caught in the criminal justice net. Simply stated, among those that enter the criminal justice system through jails, problematic alcohol use is rampant.”

Contact Doug O'Harra at doug(at)alaskadispatch.com