NEW ORLEANS — An ongoing drug epidemic has swept the US, killing hundreds and sickening thousands more on a daily basis.
The widespread use of a substance called “alcohol” — also known as “booze” — has been linked to erratic and even dangerous behavior, ranging from college students running naked down public streets to brutal attacks and robberies.
Federal officials suggest excessive use of this drug has already been linked to 88,000 deathseach year across the country, including traffic accidents caused by drug-induced impairment, liver damage caused by excessive consumption, and violent behavior. Experts warn that it can also lead to nausea, vomiting, severe headaches, cognitive deficits among children and teens, and even fetal defects in pregnant women.
Excessive consumption of alcohol “is a leading cause of preventable deaths in the US,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention principal deputy director Ileana Arias said in a statement. “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.”
On the ground in America’s alcohol epidemic capital
Here in New Orleans, the horror of the drug was particularly prominent in the city’s French Quarter, where hundreds of young adults could be seen roiling from the effects of the drug. Some collapsed on the ground, dazed from alcohol’s effects. Others could be seen vomiting in public — a common result of drinking alcohol. Many could be seen limping and clumsily walking down the street, showcasing the type of impairment that public health officials warn can lead to accidents, especially when someone is behind the wheel of a car.
What’s worse, public use of this drug has become widely accepted in some circles. In New Orleans, several men and women in their 20s and 30s shouted that they’re going to get “wasted” — a slang term for coming under the effects of alcohol. Some have even turned drinking alcohol into a game that involves ping pong balls and cups. One popular holiday, St. Patrick’s Day, appears to celebrate the dangerous drug.
In other places, there have been similar reports of individuals engaging in bizarre, inexplicable behavior while under the effects of alcohol. Some reports found intoxicated college students exposing themselves to others or running the streets naked while shouting hysterically, particularly during spring time. Others report people urinating in public streets after a few alcoholic beverages. And at least one man who consumed alcohol tried to ride a crocodile and was seriously injured when the animal fought back.
“It actually starts to rewire the brain chemistry,” one law enforcement official said. “They have no control over their thoughts. They can’t control their actions. It’s just a dangerous, dangerous drug.”
Across the US, public health officials have linked alcohol to much graver effects, including domestic abuse, sexual assault on college campuses, 40 percent of violent crimes in the US, and more than 4.6 million emergency room visits in 2010.
According to federal data, alcohol is already the second deadliest drug in the country — topped only by another legal substance called “tobacco,” which has a smoked form that causes an astonishing 480,000 deaths each year by some estimates and 540,000 by others.
No other drug comes close to the staggering fatalities of these two. Heroin, which has consumed widespread media attention in the past few years, was linked to fewer than 9,000 deaths in 2013, and marijuana — another drug that federal lawmakers, including President Obama, have warned is dangerous — reportedly caused zero overdose deaths in the past few thousand years.
Public health experts demand action
Despite the heightened public health crisis, federal and state officials seem reluctant to do anything about the drug, which remains legal for adults 21 and older to possess and even sell in most of the US. Policymakers say that banning alcohol is out of the question, citing its importance to the economy and American culture.
Drug policy experts have suggested levying higher taxes on the drug or bringing its sales under state control, pointing to numerous studies that have shown these measures would reduce use. But lawmakers at the state and federal levels seem reluctant to take up even these milder measures, likely under the influence and lobbying of drug producers and dealers profiting from hundreds of billions in sales of alcohol each year.
Perhaps as a result, alcohol producers have felt free to advertise their product during major televised events such as the Super Bowl, which is viewed by millions of children each year. The marketing ploys tend to portray alcohol as cool and fun, seldom mentioning the risks and thousands of deaths linked to the drug.
As policymakers stand idly by, alcohol consumption has reached epidemic proportions. A recent Gallup survey found nearly two-thirds of Americans admitted to using alcohol — even as another survey by Gallup found more than one in three Americans blame alcohol for family problems.
For many public health officials, the startling numbers pose the question: What will it take to wake up the public and officials to this widening epidemic?