Shouldn’t We Be Talking about Alcohol?

The headlines are filled with stories about heroin-using individuals who lose everything they love and, in some cases, their lives. It’s easy to find stories of children being removed from homes, of parents overdosing in cars or gas station bathrooms or falling down in public. And it’s important that we know about this catastrophic loss of life to drugs like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine or synthetics. But what about alcohol? It doesn’t seem to be making headlines. Should it be?

Alcohol remains the elephant in the room. In the United States and around the world, far more people die from alcohol-related causes than drug overdoses. Below, you’ll see a chart showing the roughly 88,000 alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. compared to 47,000 drug overdose deaths.

chart of alcohol deaths vs drug overdose deaths in the US

Why aren’t headlines filled with this news? There are a few reasons:

  • Alcohol deaths are usually much slower. It can take ten to twenty years or more for a person to die from alcohol-related causes. Yes, about 2,200 people fatally overdose on alcohol each year. But for most people, it takes time. This perhaps makes the deaths less shocking and newsworthy. But the loss to the individual and his (or her) family is no less tragic.
  • Alcohol deaths are often indirect. Other than the 2,200 overdoses, death may be caused by falls, burns, drownings, assaults, cancer, heart disease, liver failure or other causes. Although the death would not have occurred without the presence of alcohol, it doesn’t make the dramatic headlines that a heroin overdose does.
  • Alcohol is legal and a hugely profitable business for many large companies. In 2016, more than $20 million is being spent to hire 280 alcohol-industry lobbyists who work hard to maintain a favorable atmosphere in this country for alcohol sales.
  • Alcohol consumption is acceptable to the vast majority of cultures that have settled in the United States. So its presence and even damage resulting from alcohol consumption are not as shocking as, say, the presence of heroin.

If we shift our focus to worldwide statistics, the contrast is even more startling. The World Health Organization estimates that 3.3 million people die each year from alcohol-related causes. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates the death toll from drug overdoses around 270,000.

chart of alcohol and drug deaths worldwide

Of course, the gulf is not quite as huge as these charts indicate because there are more people dying of drug-related causes that aren’t counted as overdoses. Endocarditis, an inflammation of an inner layer of the heart, often results from injecting drug use, as does hepatitis C and HIV. Some opioid addicts die from pneumonia because opioids restrict the function of the lungs. Some stimulant users die from kidney failure. Deaths can occur from all these causes but are not generally counted in with the overdose deaths.

Even if these indirect drug-related deaths are taken into account, there are still far more alcohol-related deaths than drug-related ones, especially when looking at worldwide figures.

What conclusions can we draw from this comparison? Alcohol is far more damaging and deadly than the media and government agencies are letting on. And alcohol prevention is just as important, if not more important, than drug prevention.



Sue Birkenshaw

Sue has worked in the addiction field with the Narconon network for three decades. She has developed and administered drug prevention programs worldwide and worked with numerous drug rehabilitation centers over the years. Sue is also a fine artist and painter, who enjoys traveling the world which continues to provide unlimited inspiration for her work. You can follow Sue on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.