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In our opinion: Public health officials worldwide are awake to the problems of alcohol abuse

Published: Sunday, July 6 2014 12:07 p.m. MDT

A bartender serves two mugs of beer.

Toby Talbot, Associated Press

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Around the country and around the world, public health officials are increasingly raising a warning cry about the incredible toll that alcohol abuse takes on society.

A report last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that excessive alcohol use accounts for 1 in 10 deaths among working-age adults ages 20-64.

Nationwide, that’s 88,000 deaths per year, each year from 2006-10.

“Excessive alcohol use is a leading cause of preventable death that kills many Americans in the prime of their lives,” said Ursula E. Bauer, the CDC's director of chronic disease prevention and health promotion. “We need to redouble our efforts to implement scientifically proven public health approaches to reduce this tragic loss of life and the huge economic costs that result.”

The CDC isn’t the only government public health agency cataloging alcohol’s impact. In May, the World Health Organization released its “Global status report on alcohol and health 2014” with country-by-country impacts for 194 WHO member states.

It found 3.3 million deaths — 5.9 percent of all deaths worldwide — attributable to alcohol consumption.

“We now have an extended knowledge of the causal relationship between alcohol consumption and more than 200 health conditions, including the new data on causal relationships between the harmful use of alcohol and the incidence and clinical outcomes of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and pneumonia,” the United Nations body wrote in the report’s foreword.

“Considering that beyond health consequences, the harmful use of alcohol inflicts significant social and economic losses on individuals and society at large, the harmful use of alcohol continues to be a factor that has to be addressed to ensure sustained social and economic development throughout the world,” the report continued.

On average, every person in the world ages 15 or older drinks 6.6 quarts of alcohol a year. But as only 38 percent of the world population drinks alcohol at all, the average drinker consumes 18 quarts annually. Figures among the nations of the Americas were even higher, with the average person drinking 8.9 quarts annually.

What can be done to combat this scourge? “The report clearly shows that there is no room for complacency when it comes to reducing the harmful use of alcohol,” said WHO Assistant Director Dr. Oleg Chestnov.

Worldwide, Chestov suggested increasing taxes on alcohol, limiting the availability of alcohol by raising the age limit (many countries of the world do not bar consumption by individuals under 21, as do the states of the United States), and in regulating the marketing of alcoholic beverages.

Utah is not immune from the public health impacts of alcohol. Utah’s death rate of 22.9 per 100,000 population was lower than New Mexico’s 51 per 100,000, but higher than New Jersey’s 19.1 per 100,000.

Fortunately, the state Legislature takes this problem seriously. Its balanced approach permits social drinkers to obtain a beverage, but discourages overconsumption, drunk driving and youth drinking. As we noted earlier this year, “One core aspect of Utah’s balanced regulation of alcohol centers on the distinction between a bar and a restaurant. As public health officials in other states, including California, are discovering, it is vital to maintain this distinction.”

"Excessive alcohol use is a huge public health problem," study researcher Dr. Robert Brewer, of the CDC's Alcohol Program, told the Huffington Post, which reported on the study and noted Utah’s relative success at discouraging overconsumption. "It's killing people in the prime of their lives."

In the details of Dr. Brewer’s report, he and his co-authors address the death rates among the states and said that these differences “probably reflect differences in the prevalence of excessive drinking, particularly binge drinking, which is affected by state and local laws governing the price, availability, and marketing of alcoholic beverages.”

America’s states exhibit an astonishing and diverse patchwork of laws that attempt to curb the abuse of alcohol. While no state’s system is perfect or immune from the death toll brought on by alcohol, Utah is fortunate to have its balanced set of restrictions on marketing and distribution. They continue to produce favorable impacts in curbing a social problem that claims the lives of 1 in 10 working-age individuals.

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