How to reduce alcohol-related deaths, illness and heartbreak


April is Alcohol Awareness Month. For the Michigan Council on Alcohol Problems, this is the perfect time to look at how alcohol affects every one of us, whether we drink or not. 

We often think of alcohol like the Psalmist, that it “gladdens the heart of man.” Yet even the Bible speaks of the dangers of alcohol. Rare is the person who hasn’t seen alcohol’s impact at home, work or in personal relationships.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, half of American adults said they drank alcohol in the past month, and 70% said they drank in the past year. One-in-four adults said they engaged in “binge drinking” in the past year. 

Alcohol is legal, and no one is trying to change that. But being legal doesn’t mean drinking is without consequences.  

The price of alcohol use

Drinkers and non-drinkers alike pay a high price for alcohol use. We see it in unnecessary illness, injury, violence, personal tragedy and heartbreak. We see car crashes and falls. We see alcohol-related illness and premature death. Dollar-wise, we pay higher health and car insurance premiums.

Sadly, some families bear a heavy burden of alcohol use, especially when an adult is unable to function effectively as an employee, parent or spouse. 

More than 140,000 Americans die each year from alcohol-related causes, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control. A large share are premature deaths from liver disease, heart disease and cancer.  

Alcohol is linked to over 200 diseases. The American Cancer Society lists seven serious cancers for which alcohol significantly elevates risk. Breast cancer among women is especially concerning since drinking even a small amount of alcohol over time is linked to breast cancer, and the risk increases in direct proportion to the number of drinks. 

For both men and women, drinking is strongly associated with cancers of the liver, mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus and stomach, colon and rectum.  

The toll of impaired driving

Drinking too much in a short period directly causes thousands of U.S. deaths from vehicle crashes. Over the past decade, over 10,000 Americans died every year in alcohol-impaired driving traffic accidents. In 2020, the U.S. drunk driving toll was 11,654 deaths.

Michigan State Police report that 357 people died in alcohol-involved traffic accidents, one-third of all 1,131 traffic deaths statewide in 2021, the most recent year for which we have data. In other words, on average, one Michigan adult or child dies almost every day from alcohol–related traffic accidents.

Right now, the best way to make our roads and waterways safer, and to save thousands of lives of drivers and innocent victims is to reduce the number of drivers under the influence of alcohol. 

The case for .05 BAC

Since Michigan adopted the .08 Blood Alcohol Concentration legal standard for drunk driving, evidence has mounted that alcohol affects drivers well before reaching .08 BAC. 

In fact, National Highway Safety Board studies show “significant impairment throughout the BAC range of 0.02 to 0.10,” and that “by 0.04 BAC, all measures of impairment are statistically significant.”

The NHSB recommended a decade ago that Michigan and all other states replace their current legal limit of .08 BAC with .05 BAC. Just last year, a new NHSB study confirmed “that lowering the blood alcohol concentration limit from .08 to .05 will save lives and increase road safety.”

Across the country, legislatures in several states are discussing the proposed .05 BAC limit. 

Studies show that drivers with a BAC between .05 and .079 are seven times more likely to be in a fatal crash and six to 17 times more likely to be killed than sober drivers, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

In 2018, Utah became the first state to adopt the .05 BAC limit.  After implementation, annual alcohol-related fatalities in Utah significantly dropped, by 19%. 

Interestingly, around the world, the most common BAC limit is .05 or lower. Across Europe, countries renowned for enjoying their wine and beer enforce a .05 BAC limit, including France, Germany, The Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. It is also .05 in Australia and New Zealand. In some countries, such as Norway and Sweden, the limit is .02 BAC. To be sure, some countries like Canada and the United Kingdom still have a .08 BAC like Michigan, but far more countries have a limit of .05 or .02, or even less.

The NHSB estimates conservatively that lowering the BAC to .05 across all states would “reduce the number of fatal alcohol crashes by 11%, potentially saving 1,800 lives a year and preventing thousands more life-altering injuries.”

Reducing alcohol-related problems

Drinking alcohol is risky, but we can reduce problems associated with alcohol. 

On a public policy level, to reduce drunk driving and save lives, adopting a .05 BAC in Michigan would be a surefire way to make our roads safer and reduce avoidable tragedies. 

It would save lives if Michigan adopted .05 BAC. 

On a personal level, we all might want to check out the benefits of drinking less.  “Dry January” has become a phenomenon, and many drinkers have discovered the benefits of a month or more away from alcohol. 

For pregnant women, alcohol is simply not safe for you and your unborn child. Please don’t drink.

It was once thought that red wine conferred health benefits, but experts and respected medical journals around the world now routinely caution about the health effects of drinking. 

The latest scientific evidence came last month, when the journal JAMA Network reported that no amount of wine or beer leads to longer life. Even moderate levels of drinking increased the risk of dying sooner.

Another 2023 study from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addition concluded: “It doesn’t matter what kind of alcohol it is — wine, beer, cider or spirits. Research shows that no amount or kind of alcohol is good for your health.”

“Drinking alcohol, even in a small amount, is damaging to everyone, regardless of age, sex, gender, ethnicity, tolerance for alcohol or lifestyle.”

That’s why, if you drink, it’s better to drink less.


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