Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Iowans Keep Alcohol Flowing

November 19, 2014, 3:30 p.m.

Taking a Look at the Numbers

With the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division, 80th Annual Report (2014), this may be a good time to take a look at Iowans' drinking habits. (And see Rod Boshart, "Alcohol sales in Iowa leveling off but still record," The Gazette, November 19, 2014.)

While some argue it's time to call off our war on drugs, Ethan Nadelmann, "Why We Need to End the War on Drugs," TED Talks, October 2014, others suggest we need to reexamine our peace treaty with alcohol.

One is reminded of the story of the father who, when told that his son and friends were nearly killed in a drunk driving accident responded, "Oh, thank goodness they weren't using drugs."

Alcohol is, by almost every measure, far and away our nation's number one hard drug. It is involved in roughly half of all sexual assaults and other violent crimes, a problem for roughly half of all our prison population, the cause of billions of dollars in losses to businesses and taxpayers, with an adverse impact on millions of children, other family members, and fellow employees.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports in its "Alcohol Facts and Statistics" that 56% of Americans over 18 reported consuming alcohol during the past month, and 25% reported binge drinking (the source of 75% of the $223 billion annual loss from alcohol misuse, including 40% of aggressive incidents, 22% of police time, and 13% of employee sick days). The third leading preventable causes of death are alcohol-related (6% of all global deaths, or 3.3 million persons; 40% of traffic-related deaths). Alcohol has been identified as a risk factor for cancers of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, liver, and breast. Those affected by others' alcohol misuse include millions of family members and fellow workers; 10% of children live with a parent with alcohol problems.

As those of us associated with universities and colleges know, alcohol creates special problems for students. For example, among those 18-22 years old, 60% of college students, but only 52% of those not in college, drank alcohol during the past month. (Binge drinking is reported by 40% and 35% respectively.) [Photo credit: Nicholas Johnson.]

Researchers estimate that each year: 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor-vehicle crashes; 696,000 students are assaulted by a drunken student, including 97,000 students who report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape. About 1 in 4 report academic consequences from drinking, including missing class, falling behind in class, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall.

So just how much are Iowans drinking?

According to the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division, 80th Annual Report (2014) there are 2,178,145 Iowans of legal drinking age (over 21).

How should we calculate "a drink"? For consistency, we'll use the definition of a "standard drink" provided by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: 14 grams of pure alcohol, which is the average content of 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor. "What Is a Standard Drink?" National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The Iowa agency reports our alcohol consumption in gallons: 74,910,545 gallons of beer, 5,019,618 gallons of hard liquor, and 4,382,755 gallons of wine. Since it also reports there are 2,178,145 Iowans of legal drinking age (over 21), that means our per capita consumption per year (in gallons) is 34.39 gallons of beer, 2.30 of hard liquor, and 2.01 of wine. [Photo credit:]

Since most of us don't even drink water a gallon at a time, let lone alcohol, here it is in "standard drinks" consumed annually by each of us (on average): 366 bottles of beer, 196 shots of 80-proof liquor, and 51 glasses of wine. (Johnson County, with 93,581 legal drinkers is consuming 250 shots a year per capita, and is probably substantially above the state average for beer as well, especially if the illegal consumption by students could be counted.)

What should one conclude from these numbers? It's hard to say. There are skirmishes around the drinking age -- whether it should be 21 or 18 -- but there is no longer any pressure for prohibition. The stats indicate that we're consuming a lot of alcohol (certainly by my personal standards), especially when one considers that roughly one-third of all Americans don't drink at all. And we're suffering our share of the consequences in violence, prison and hospital admissions, economic losses, and other aspects of a boozing lifestyle. On the other hand, Iowa is 23rd among all the 50 states in per capital consumption -- for any who find the comparison comforting.

Nonetheless, for a state that's having difficulty even approving medical marijuana, let alone substituting treatment for prison for all recreational drug use, it's long past time we treated alcohol as the nation's number one hard drug that it is. We can do better -- for our health, for our young people, and for our taxpayers.

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