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Alcohol Abuse Keeping Pace With Opioid Epidemic – Why Aren’t We Talking About it?

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Alcohol Abuse Keeping Pace With Opioid Epidemic – Why Aren’t We Talking About it?

The opioid crisis in the United States has reached epic proportions – an escalating trend of abuse that commonly begins with prescription painkiller dependence and ends with heroin addiction. Meanwhile, dangerous and deadly synthetic drugs have made their way into the U.S. via the Dark Web or black market. alcohol abuse

Therefore, many people erroneously assume that opioids have overtaken alcohol as America’s drug of choice – and it’s somewhat understandable, give the reasons for this widespread belief.

One, we encounter news and stories about the opioid epidemic every day and the people whom it affects as if opiate/opioid abuse is something new. You rarely have articles or documentaries on alcoholism appear on your radar unless you are seeking them out explicitly. Why? Because we’ve been dealing with alcoholism as a mostly legal and available substance for a very long time.

Two, alcohol is legal, abuse is widely accepted. Binge drinking during college, weddings, parties, bars, clubs, and holidays is entirely excusable. In fact, of the four types of alcoholics, binge drinkers are the most common. Conversely, the long-term, chronic alcoholic that may include a grandparent, uncle or local “town drunk” is the rarest.

Three, it’s hard to know when to draw the line between alcohol misuse and alcoholism. This broad acceptance of abuse or “drinking too much” infiltrates our culture in movies and television. Drunks are often funny and merely pass out instead of drinking and driving. An all too common behavior can lead to far more tragic while results such as killing an entire family driving the wrong way down a one-way street.

Four, alcohol is also a slow killer compared to heroin, at least concerning the impact on the user’s body. Consuming too much alcohol can lead to chronic disease, fatal auto accidents, burns, assault, and other life-threatening injuries. And yet, it’s rare to see death by alcohol poisoning, which kills around 2,200 people per year versus over 42,000 deaths that involved opiates and opioids.

Both Substances Are Driving the Drug Epidemic

According to research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 54 million Americans report having abused prescription painkillers for non-medical purposes sometime during their lifetime. “Abuse” of painkillers, however, does not necessarily indicate addiction. In fact, In many cases, it does not.

On the other hand, a 2017 study in JAMA Psychiatry found that 1 in 8 Americans has an alcohol use disorder (AUD) – a diagnosis that reflects those who are dependent or addicted to alcohol on some level. Conversely, the numbers for opioid abusers DO include those who may have experimented but did not necessarily become addicted.

According to the study, the incidence of AUDs rose by 50% (affecting around 8.5% of the population from 2002-2003 to 12.7% from 2012-2013. The groups with the most significant increases in abuse included women, African Americans, and older Americans.

Of the three groups, the age range that saw the highest increase in alcoholism was senior citizens – those 65 and older experienced an incredible 106.7% increase in AUDs from the decade between the early 2000’s and 2013.

Alcohol Still Most Abused

According to data from NIDA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), alcohol dependence is the number one cause (23%) of admission to substance abuse treatment programs. Polydrug use disorder (alcohol plus another substance, such as heroin or code) came in a close second (18%). Cannabis (17%) and heroin (14%) accounted for much of the remaining admissions, followed by cocaine, stimulants, and other illicit drugs.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) estimates that around 16 million (6%) of people in the U.S. can be diagnosed with an AUD (compulsive, uncontrolled alcohol use, and the manifestation of withdrawal symptoms following abrupt cessation.

Factors that Influence the Development of AUDs

Age of onset

Many studies show that consuming alcohol as a minor (under 18 or 19) may interrupt normal brain development and increase the risk of alcohol and drug addiction later in life. Also, drinking underage can impact a variety of negative consequences such as injury, physical and sexual assault, and death.


Alcohol is readily available in all 50 states, with only a few dry counties remaining, mostly in the south. It is sold at convenience stores, grocery markets, and even pharmacies. It is found at all types of social events and gatherings, and unless you are buying top-shelf liquor or fine, well-aged wine, it’s not particularly expensive.

Social Acceptance

Alcohol has been used medicinally, and as a recreational substance for thousands of years, with mead (honey wine) believed to the among the earlier forms. As noted, overturning alcohol’s legality and other strict regulations have oft met with failure.

Our best weapon against alcohol abuse is education and prevention, primarily geared toward youth. Children, teenagers, and young adults should have the ability to recognize risk factors and understand the dangers of both short-term (i.e., binge drinking) and long-term alcohol misuse. Those with AUDs should be encouraged to seek treatment, and media campaigns aimed at reducing the stigma of alcoholism should be increased substantially.


While opioid addiction, overdoses, and deaths have risen dramatically in the last two decades, alcohol abuse has been around since nearly the beginning of humankind. It is not waning in relationship to other substances but increasing right along with ubiquitous drug use.

We must be aware that the drug epidemic is not just about opioids – in addition to illicit drugs, alcohol was the #1 international killer, as reported by the World Health Organization in 2011. This top ranking reflected an astonishing 2.5 million fatalities globally each year.

Get Help Today

If you or someone you love is abusing substances, please seek treatment as soon as possible. There are many resources available to help you or your loved one.

Please call us today at 877-497-6180 for a free consultation.

~ Natalee G. Serrels, M.A., Psychology

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