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America’s Real Drug Problem: Alcohol Abuse Costs US Billions Annually

photo of friends toasting alcoholic drinks, alcohol abuse in the US is an overlooked drug problem
(Photo: Pixabay)

A report in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine states that alcohol abuse costs the United States a whopping $249 billion in 2010 alone.

America’s epidemic of opioid abuse and the increasing problem of methamphetamine addiction have been the stars of newspaper headlines and New York Times bestsellers for years, but in the wake of these sensational stories, an intoxicating specter that has plagued America and most of Europe for centuries has been widely forgotten. This specter is alcohol, a powerful depressant that has arguably caused more problems for society throughout history than any other intoxicating substance.

Alcohol is a Drug That Can Lead to Abuse and Dependency

People often forget that alcohol is a drug, or prefer to place it in a separate category, hence the common term “drugs and alcohol,” but Western society needs to come to grips with the fact that alcohol is an intoxicant, capable of causing the same degree of debilitation and societal problems as “harder” substances like heroin and meth.

Alcohol is ubiquitous in America and most developed countries. Corporations that sell beer and distilled spirits intensely market their products through advertisements and sponsorship of concerts and athletic events as alluring and fashionable. Whiles drugs such as heroin and crack are confined to spaces and groups on the fringes of society, alcohol is everywhere you turn.

If you want to quit smoking crack, you can cut yourself off from those who hang out in crack houses. If you want to quit drinking, alcohol will still be there all around you since it’s legal. You may have to withdraw completely from conventional settings and social scenarios to avoid alcohol.

Scott Dagenfield, a therapist and drug abuse counselor in central Ohio, one of the states that happens to be right at the center of the opioid crisis, told Citizen Truth, “It’s important to remember that all chemicals have consequences. When used to excess, every chemical begins to undermine the body’s natural integrity and eventually interferes in increasing levels with day-to-day living. With time almost all drugs create a rapid physical and emotional dependence that drives a pattern of increased use and both psychological and emotional dysfunction.”

When an individual is attempting to treat alcohol use disorder, Dagenfield states that the disorder “should initially be addressed with abstinence and a careful examination of the behavioral and psychological issues which are present.” The problem with abstaining from alcohol as compared to other substances is that alcohol is everywhere in modern American life from sporting events and concerts to restaurants and movie theaters, alcohol, tempting the addict.

Alcohol Abuse Costs Billions Every Year

The impact of alcohol on health and lifestyle in the United States is staggering. According to the National Institute of Health, about “88,000 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually.”

According to these statistics, alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States, behind tobacco and health complications due to unhealthy diets. The way that big tobacco and processed food companies target at-risk groups to push their products is very similar to the schemes major alcohol producers use. The addictive qualities of these products make it incredibly easy to keep customers returning, especially if you get them hooked at a young age.

The economic toll of alcohol is even more mind-boggling. A report in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine states that abuse of alcohol cost the United States a whopping $249 billion in 2010 alone.  Large alcohol companies are making tons of money while Americans are paying the price, both financially and physically.

Dagenfield emphasized that everyone has different reasons for developing a problem with alcohol, and that “every person has a different basis for their drinking, thinks about it differently and has roots and patterns that are quite personal in nature and therefore misses it for different reasons.”

“Often psychological issues are also intertwined with the use of the substance, which more often than not creates an analgesic impact on the body and provides mental relief of some sort.  When the pattern increases in frequency and the individual becomes more dependent on the substance and the ritual patterns that develop, both the pattern and the substance require a form of retraining or relearning coping, interactional or active skills. All this takes time and effort over a range of social and personal settings,” Dagenfield said.

Alcohol Abuse in the US

The United States has historically had more of a problem with excessive drinking then comparable developed countries. It was brought to this continent by the European settlers and with them came their drinking habits. Alcohol holds a special place in American history; the seeds of the American Revolution were sown in rowdy taverns, and many of the most famous founding fathers were brewers or alcohol vendors.

America has also typically displayed a more puritanical attitude toward drinking. Consider Prohibition and its proponents who believed banning alcohol completely would solve the problem. Instead, it led to dark chapters in American history such as the rise of bootlegging and other organized crime. People continued to drink, and some drank to excess.

Binge drinking is a glaring problem on America’s college campuses, particularly in frat houses. Henry Sarno, who attends the University of Chicago and is a member of one of the fraternities there had some terrifying stories to tell about his experience in the fraternity.

Many of the experiences he described involved pledges, who are typically freshman attempting to join the fraternity and go through the hazing process, even though many colleges and universities have banned hazing. Quite often, part of that hazing is drinking large quantities of alcohol (usually distilled spirits) in a short amount of time.

“Drinking is weirdly ritualized in college, especially in fraternities. Drinking until you puke, and then continuing to drink, is totally celebrated and endorsed. In pledging contexts, it’s sometimes even forced,” Sarno told Citizen Truth.

Fraternities and the parties thrown in frat houses are a huge part of drinking culture on most college campuses, and even students not affiliated with Greek life have almost certainly attended a couple of these events throughout their college careers.

This kind of drinking can lead to alcohol poisoning, and it’s possible for the drinker to die from the poisoning or from injuries sustained while completely intoxicated. Sarno said that “alcohol-related incidents are very common at the University of Chicago as a whole, but especially in fraternities. I know one kid the year below me who went to the hospital for alcohol poisoning three times his freshman year, and all three of those were related to the fraternity pledging process.”

Alcohol Abuse is a Measure of Societal Health

Dagenfield also was quick to point out that alcohol abuse, like any form of substance abuse, is a societal problem caused by societal issues.

“Individuals who feel integrated into a society and have a sense of access to the benefits, to the potentials that are offered by that society, are less likely to develop broad and widespread addiction patterns because there are a significant number of avenues for personal benefit other than intoxication and avoidance on a routine basis,” he said.

Dagenfield also noted there is no clear and simple way to prevent individuals from developing alcohol use disorder besides avoiding the substance entirely.

“There are a range of medical explanations for the impact of alcohol on the body, but there are no clear reasons for why one person develops a disorder [including a genetic tendency], another has no problems and a third goes in and out of abuse. Exposure to alcohol and frequency of use are the only clear reasons in a behavioral repertoire,” said Dagenfield.

Dagenfield added, “Alcohol has existed since the beginning of time, both as an abusable substance and a public health issue. It is even strongly suggested that alcohol was the cause of or the immediate result of ancient farming.”

With regards to laws and ordinances regarding alcohol use, Dagenfield believes that “laws are a waste of time.”

“They require enforcement and punishment and when something is as ingrained in a social structure as alcohol is attempting to limit it does not good. Looking at the history of Prohibition in the U.S. is quite beneficial when one is interested in understanding how government intervention goes awry. On the other hand, interdicting the areas where alcohol is not permitted, such as driving for example, can allow a society to manage safety and developmental issues, and that can be beneficial.”

The huge problems many communities are facing with regard to opioid addiction, alcohol use disorder and other substance abuse problems are a sign that our society is leaving many individuals with very few solutions to help them cope with their problems. For the first time in over a century life expectancy in the U.S. has dropped for three straight years (2015, 2016, 2017) adding further proof that U.S. society is ailing.

From a lack of adequate mental health services to severe financial burdens, the need to find some sort of escape from daily problems is becoming a reality for many Americans. No matter the treatment plans and options available to help people fight their addictions, substance abuse will continue to be a serious problem until the root causes of the issue are addressed.

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