PORTLAND, Ore. — Paul Lewis, MD, the health officer for Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties, says in Oregon alcohol kills far more people than all other drugs combined.
Oregon’s rate of alcohol-related deaths is nearly twice as high as the national average. And in that category, the state ranks fifth worst in the country according to new data from the Trust for America’s Health. Washington ranks No. 10.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says excessive alcohol use leads to approximately 88,000 deaths per year in the U.S. Nationwide there were more than 70,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017.
Lewis also says where you live can determine what causes your death.
“For example, we talk about drinking and smoking and exercise and food. If you live in a place with no grocery stores, your diet may not be very good,” he told a KATU reporter Friday, saying many areas like that exist in Northeast and Southeast Portland. “Also, if you live in a neighborhood without sidewalks or without street lights, you might not get much exercise.”
The Portland area has an alcohol-friendly culture with many people enjoying local beer and wine.
But Lewis says, watch out.
“It’s really unsafe drinking, that’s the problem. We don’t think there’s any safe smoking but drinking can be done in moderation,” he explained. “Binge drinking is five drinks for a male and four for a female at a given setting. Oregon is above the national average on all of those things.”
Statewide, Lewis pointed out that the number of alcohol-related deaths per 100,000 people has climbed dramatically in Oregon from 31 in 2001 to 43 in 2015. By comparison, in 2015 there were about 12 overdose deaths from all drugs per 100,000 people across the state.
“Deaths from opioids are dramatic. Someone’s alive one minute, stops breathing and is dead a few minutes later,” Lewis said. “Deaths from things like alcohol are a lot more subtle. They take years to develop and the cause isn’t often attributed to alcohol. It’s attributed to a liver disease or bleeding or stroke. But the underlying cause is overuse of alcohol.”
Authorities say an average of 124 people commit suicide each year in Multnomah County. Fewer than half those who carry out suicide have a known mental health condition, according to county health officials, but about three-in-four people who kill themselves have had trouble with drugs or alcohol.
“And a large number of traffic-related injuries and deaths have substances related as do homicides,” Lewis explained.
Lewis, who recently reported this data to Multnomah County commissioners, said death rates in multiple categories are higher among people of color than among white people.
“Even after we’d done all the analysis, we’re left with the uncomfortable conclusion that racism, discrimination of all kinds and inequality lead to stress and despair that build up over time and lead to increased death rates,” Lewis said.
Multnomah County is considering restricting the sale of tobacco and banning the sale of flavored tobacco.
County Chair Deborah Kafoury asked the public health division to come up with new regulations after hearing a briefing from Lewis and other health officials on preventable deaths. One of the possible regulations would restrict the sale of tobacco near schools, but it’s unclear at this point by how much.
Some commissioners are also targeting flavored tobacco, calling it an open invitation to kids.