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CDC warns of dangers – including death – from binge drinking

Drinking at a party at a fraternity house at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in May, 2002
Drinking at a party at a fraternity house at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in May, 2002 Chicago Tribune/TNS

America’s binge drinkers are fueling an average of six alcohol-poisoning deaths per day, according to a new government report.

Women who have four or more drinks on an occasion and men who have five or more are considered binge drinkers by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But nearly every week, more than 38 million people report consuming an average of eight drinks during one episode, or binge, the CDC found.

That kind of heavy drinking over a short period, such as two to three hours, can prove fatal. High alcohol levels can shut down the brain’s ability to control breathing, heart rate and body temperature, leading to death.

“If we could eliminate binge drinking, we would dramatically reduce the risk of alcohol poisoning,” said Bob Brewer, who heads the alcohol program of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the CDC.

Most of the estimated 1.5 billion binge-drinking episodes each year involve Americans 26 and older, Brewer said. But CDC researchers were surprised to find that people ages 35 to 64 accounted for 75 percent of America’s roughly 2,200 alcohol-poisoning deaths each year from 2010 to 2012.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom, there’s a lot of binge drinking that’s going on by people who are post-college age,” Brewer said in a telephone briefing Tuesday.

While binge drinking with hard liquor is more common among younger adults, middle-aged people typically binge on beer.

The CDC analysis, which studied alcohol poisoning deaths among those 15 and older, found that alcoholism was a factor in 30 percent of the deaths. Almost 70 percent of alcohol poisoning deaths from 2010 to 2012 occurred among non-Hispanic whites. American Indians and Alaska Natives, however, had the highest death rates from alcohol poisoning.

With 46.5 deaths per 1 million residents, Alaska had the nation’s highest death rate from alcohol poisoning. Alabama had the lowest rate, at just 5.3 deaths per million residents.

“Alcohol poisoning deaths are a heartbreaking reminder of the dangers of excessive alcohol use, which is a leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S.” said CDC Principal Deputy Director Ileana Arias. “We need to implement effective programs and policies to prevent binge drinking and the many health and social harms that are related to it, including deaths from alcohol poisoning.”

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