Alcoholism: America’s Hidden Substance Abuse Epidemic

February 28, 2019 Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , United States




Jori Hamilton



For decades now America has been on the verge of an opioid epidemic which has sparked national attention in recent years. At the same time however, a larger and more expansive substance abuse issue has been bubbling under the surface; an alarming number of Americans struggle with alcoholism.


Substance abuse comes in many forms, but alcoholism is one of the easiest to miss — it often doesn’t leave physical traces, nor does it necessarily envelop every aspect of your life in the same way that other illicit substances do. And even though the numbers of those suffering from the disease are high, the problem is not as clear to the public eye as the abuse of other substances.


In the U.S., both casual and binge drinking are so normalized that most don’t even realize they have a drinking problem. However, according to a 2017 study, alcohol abuse has increased by 50 percent since the start of the century, meaning an estimated one in eight Americans abuse alcohol today, and one in six US adults binge drink at least four times a month.


While the statistics have gone up over the past few decades, the problem in itself is nothing new. Substance abuse, and in particular alcohol abuse, has been an almost constant since the beginning of human civilization. But quantifying the costs, personally, socially, and fiscally, is something that has only been taken seriously in recent years.


A study recently published in JAMA Psychiatry is one of the first to quantify these costs. According to their research, alcohol is responsible for the death of ten percent of working-age adults in the U.S. These deaths come from illnesses that manifest among those who partake in excessive drinking as well as accidents as a result of alcohol use, especially if they’re young adults. In fact, 30 percent of drunk driving-related accidents involve people between 21 and 24 years of age.


While the majority of people with alcoholism work full-time jobs, the study also suggests that excessive drinking costs the American taxpayer over $250 billion per year in lost productivity at work, additional healthcare costs, and other expenses. Even if individuals have managed to keep their addiction under control enough to get through the work week, their bodies are suffering internally. Each year, 90,000 people die from alcohol-related causes.


Furthermore, the emotional toll that this disease takes on individuals and their families is unquantifiable, but clearly has lasting impacts on those involved.


This is due, in part, by the hesitancy to label addiction as an illness that needs to be treated. Instead, many social moores exist that make alcoholism seem like a failure on the part of the individual affected.


Eliminating this stigma and educating the public about the dangers of alcohol dependency is certainly something that public health officials and the medical community are trying to accomplish in years to come.


“Nurses trained in behavioral health and dedicated to educating and treating people with tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drug addictions, as well as preventing such addictions, can help to reverse the negative effects of the nationwide epidemic,” write the experts at Duquesne University. With better public education about the problem at hand led by experts, it’s likely that the problem may be able to be addressed at the source before it becomes a bigger issue.


Still, without completely upending the mental health care system in the United States, it’s likely that substance abuse will continue to grow as an epidemic in the United States. The fact of the matter is, mental health care is largely inaccessible for the majority of the U.S. population, and current models of rehabilitation are time consuming and expensive. Those who suffer the worst with this addiction are those least likely to be able to afford comprehensive help with their addiction.


Other solutions have been explored, however. Some individual states have explored enacting “sin taxes” in order to deter people from drinking to excess and help to raise state tax revenue. Alaska, Delaware, New Hampshire and Oregon have no sales tax, for example, but they do levy taxes on alcohol.


It’s a thought that bears consideration at the very least, due to the significant societal cost that alcohol dependency creates. Similar initiatives exist in other places around the world and have had varying amounts of success. In Scotland, for example, a law was passed that would set a 65 cent minimum price for every unit a drink contains, putting the onus on the drinker rather than the taxpayer.


Regardless of the response taken, it’s clear that the issue needs to be more seriously addressed by lawmakers and public health officials at the national level. By continuing to ignore or even minimize this particular problem, the U.S. has effectively made the problem much worse.





Jori Hamilton

Jori Hamilton is a writer from the United States who is passionate about social justice, education, and politics. You can follow her work on twitter @HamiltonJori

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1 Comment

  1. Sarah Ito February 28, at 23:03

    Very well observed. I agree that this issue is under-reported and getting worse.


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