The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Drug Administration this week confirmed what states have been reporting for years: That the rate of heroin use in the U.S. has climbed 63 percent in the past decade; and the rate of heroin abuse or dependence climbed 90 percent over the same period. Deaths caused by heroin overdoses nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2013, claiming 8,257 lives in 2013, the agencies reported. The study also confirms what states, such as Washington, discovered quite a few years ago — that there is a“particularly strong” relationship between initial use of opioid painkillers and later heroin use.
Studies like the one from the CDC make for big headlines, and heroin use is indeed news, but such single-minded focus on one drug gives the wrong impression about what substance really causes the most problems in society. It’s not heroin. But reports on alcohol generate very little buzz or big headlines, apparently because it’s legal. But it’s not for lack of scientific evidence and studies.
In 2010, British scientists said that alcohol is a more dangerous drug than both crack cocaine and heroin when the combined harms to the user and to others are assessed. A new study in the U.S. found that the risk of alcohol disorders appears to be going up in the last decade.
The World Health Organization estimates that risks linked to alcohol cause 2.5 million deaths a year from heart and liver disease, road accidents, suicides and cancer — accounting for 3.8 percent of all deaths, Reuters reported in 2010. It is the third leading risk factor for premature death and disabilities worldwide.
A new study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), found that in a given year, about 14 percent of American adults misuse alcohol, which researchers refer to as having “alcohol use disorder.” This yearly rate translates to an estimated 32.6 million Americans with drinking problems during a 12-month period, Live Science reported. The majority of people with an alcohol use disorder don’t get treatment, the study also found. (“Alcohol use disorder” is a new term, encompassing both “alcohol abuse” or “alcohol dependence” diagnoses.)
Although more Americans are drinking heavily and having problems with alcohol misuse at earlier ages, the data also revealed that only 20 percent of Americans ever get any treatment, the study found. Researchers believe this is linked to the stigma felt in seeking treatment; being unaware of available treatment, including several effective medications, and the age-old, ubiquitous reason: denial.
Just as the British researchers found, the new study says alcohol contributes to more than 200 diseases, including liver problems, cancers and injuries, and is responsible for car accidents, disability and premature death.
“This study is shining a light on a serious problem that many Americans might not realize is there,” said George Koob, director of the NIAAA, adding that people might not understand how much alcohol affects the cost of medical care and society in general.
If Americans really don’t realize was a serious problem alcohol is, it’s long past time for a heavy-duty health campaign and public service announcements.