Department of Health Epidemiologist Gwendolyn Gallagher addresses Los Alamos County DWI Council members at their monthly meeting. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County DWI Council heard from Department of Health Epidemiologist Gwendolyn Gallagher at their February meeting that the consequences of excessive alcohol use are severe in New Mexico.
“The negative consequences of excessive alcohol use in New Mexico are not limited to death, but include: domestic violence, crime, poverty and unemployment as well as chronic liver disease, motor vehicle crash and other injuries, mental illness and a variety of other medical problems,” Gallagher said. “Nationally, one in 10 deaths among working age adults, aged 20 to 64, is attributable to alcohol. In New Mexico, that ration is one in five deaths”.
She said according to the latest injury death estimates from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, some 47 percent of homicides, 32 percent of falls injury deaths, 29 percent of drug overdose deaths and 23 percent of suicide deaths are alcohol attributable.
Gallagher said alcohol consumption is the primary causal factor on roughly 46 to 49 percent of motor vehicle crash deaths among males aged 20 to 44 and more than a third of motor vehicle crashes among females in the same age group. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for youth aged 15 to 20 years. Gallagher said 12.8 percent of all fatal traffic crashes in the United States were alcohol-related and some 40 percent of those involved teens driving while drinking alcohol.
“For Los Alamos with regard to drinking and driving the most recent data was 2017. The good news is that high school students in this community – historically 14 percent reported that they drove after drinking but then the most recent data show that percentage dropped by half. If we look at all the counties with regard to high school students, Los Alamos falls comparable to the state percentage but it’s still higher than the U.S. percentage which is 5.5 percent,” Gallagher said.
She said the trends for alcohol use for high schoolers in Los Alamos show that generally that the percentages have improved over time, but that what really stood out in the New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey for 2017 was that percentage of students who had their first drink of alcohol before the age of 13 increased from 14 to 17 percent. Also she noted that more youth reported that they drove with someone who had been drinking alcohol. Percentages decreased in the same time frame for current alcohol use, binge drinking and drinking and driving with binge drinking declining to an all-time low of 8.7 percent since 2005.
As to what is being done to improve the situation in New Mexico, Gallagher said there is a large body of evidence on effective strategies to prevent excessive alcohol use and alcohol-related harm. She said in the past decade, this evidence base has been the subject of numerous systematic expert reviews to assess the quality and consistency of the evidence for particular strategies and to make recommendations based on this evidence. Gallagher said these expert reviews have been summarized by the NMDOH and divided into three parts.
Primary prevention attempts to stop a problem before it starts. In New Mexico, primary prevention of alcohol-related health problems has focused on regulating access to alcohol consumption behavior of high-risk populations, Gallagher said. Regulatory efforts have included increasing the price of alcohol (showing to be effective in deterring alcohol use among adolescents), establishing a minimum drinking age, regulating the density of liquor outlets, and increasing penalties for buyers and servers of alcohol to minors. DWI-related law enforcement such as sobriety checkpoints when accompanied by media activity can also be an important form of primary prevention, increasing the perceived risk of driving after drinking among the general population.
Secondary prevention efforts try to detect and treat emergent cases before they cause harm, Gallagher said. Screening and brief interventions for adults in primary care settings is an evidence-based intervention to address problem drinking before it causes serious harm. Implementing this intervention more broadly in New Mexico primary care settings could help reduce the serious burden if alcohol-related chronic disease and injury, she said.
Tertiary prevention involves the treatment of individuals diagnosed with alcohol use disorders so they can recover to the highest possible level of health while minimizing the effects of the disease and preventing complications. Sadly, according to recent estimates from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, roughly 130,000 New Mexicans report past-year alcohol dependence or abuse, indicating an acute need for treatment, however, fewer than one in 10 people in need of treatment receives it.