New Alcohol Death Figures Show We Need Big, National Action | Opinion

Early on in the pandemic, as people found themselves stuck at home, some began to drink more. There were reports of an increase in alcohol consumption. One study found that of nearly 2,000 Americans surveyed, one-third said they had engaged in binge drinking—and that the amount they were drinking was increasing each week.

Since then, as state authorities have gathered data, news of a spike in alcohol-related deaths has trickled out from communities across the country. In New Mexico, alcohol-related deaths reached 88.5 out of every 100,000 people in 2020, up from 66 in 2016. Maryland reported record high deaths from drugs and alcohol as well. And just this month, Wisconsin authorities announced that more than 1,000 people died from excessive drinking in 2020, a nearly 25 percent increase from the year before.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving reported that fatal crashes involving alcohol jumped 9 percent nationwide during the first year of the pandemic even though there were fewer cars on the road.

Excessive drinking also leads to long-term problems, so it often takes years to see the devastating toll. Researchers have come out with a warning about just how dire it could be. Excessive alcohol consumption jumped by 21 percent nationwide during 2020, which is likely to "result in 8,000 additional deaths from alcohol-related liver disease, 18,700 cases of liver failure, and 1,000 cases of liver cancer by 2040," Massachusetts General Hospital reported. If the increase proves to last longer than a year, there could be "19-35% additional mortality."

On top of the human toll, alcohol addiction is taking a whopping financial toll on our society as well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that excessive drinking cost the U.S. economy a quarter trillion dollars as of 2010.

Alcohol addiction is a crisis, and we need national action. Some action is coming from the federal government. The White House is funding programs to address addiction, and the recently passed infrastructure bill mandates technology inside vehicles to prevent impaired driving.

Empty glass bottles are pictured
Empty glass bottles are pictured. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

State governments have been taking action as well. Pennsylvania has launched programs to get treatment to people in need. New Jersey has created local review teams to look into the myriad factors contributing to overdose fatalities in every county.

But one of the most powerful solutions could be on the way from the scientific research community. Teams like mine are working on drugs to help people with certain genetic markers reduce their urge to drink alcohol. Humanity has struggled with alcohol addiction for thousands of years, but modern science, and emerging understandings of genes, may offer new solutions. The clinical trials are very promising. I'm hopeful that these drugs could enter the market within the next few years.

Meanwhile, other steps are needed to tackle alcohol use disorder as well. New or expanded telehealth programs should be launched to reach people who may be staying at home during the pandemic. Businesses should make sure that their insurance programs cover addiction treatment and mental health services—an expense that's certainly worth it, given that alcohol addiction and abuse can cost workplaces up to $68 billion a year. Entrepreneurs are also creating new apps designed to help people recover from alcohol addiction.

There's an important role for education as well. Schools should teach young people about alcohol addiction, helping them understand that it's a medical condition that can be treated. This is also why it's helpful to use the medical term "alcohol use disorder." Empowering people with information to recognize the dangers of alcohol abuse can have a powerful, positive impact on their lives.

And as a culture, it's time for us to stop glamorizing binge drinking—which researchers say may wire the brain for alcohol dependence. Excessive drinking is still too often celebrated in various walks of life, including college campuses. Recent research suggested that it's important to pilot test new anti-binge drinking messages, because "message fatigue" has made some ongoing campaigns ineffective among college students.

One of the most important steps our society can take is to destigmatize addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse compiled a list of terms to avoid, such as calling someone an "alcoholic" or a "drunk." It's time to help people feel free to open up about their struggles so that they can get help. We can be there for each other—and make our society, and our future, safer.

William Stilley is CEO of Adial Pharmaceuticals and a former captain in the Marines.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.