I Attended 70 plus meetings on The Hill over 2 years on America’s Addiction and Opioid Crisis, not a Single Question on the Biggest Killer, Alcohol!

by Jack O’Donnell

As the CEO of C4 Recovery Foundation, a non-profit organization, who’s core mission for the past 33 years has been to improve access to quality and ethical treatment services for addiction, behavioral health, and social wellness, I have answered many questions regarding the opioid crisis, which is gripping the country, killing individuals at an unprecedented rate. In the past 24 months alone, I have participated in no less than 70 in person meetings, phones call and zoom conferences with members of both the Republican and Democrat Parties. Senior staff from both the House and Senate, along with the individual office holders, are focused and in full understanding of what is happening in America’s war on drugs.

There is good reason for such concern and attention in Washington DC, with drug use on the rise, a drug supply tainted by fentanyl, and increasingly easy access to just about anything. There is no demographic which is not seeing increases in overdose and death from the use of illegal drugs. It makes little difference if you live in rural Wisconsin, a high rise on Park Avenue in New York City, or the mountains in West Virginia, people are dying every day, from the drug epidemic in America.

So, I commend our elected officials for their concern, and their willingness to seek outside help from experts in the field. I am happy that C4 has become a trusted resource. However, I have an alarming concern for America in it’s fight to curb addiction; we will never win the fight if the biggest issue is never discussed.

In all the meetings and conversations, I have had in Washington DC, not one question has been asked, nor has the word of America’s most deadly drug been mentioned, ALCOHOL.

To be clear, I welcome all discussion which either promotes awareness or improves access to quality treatment for any person suffering from addiction, regardless of their drug of choice.  C4 was honored to have been consulted in the writing of CARA 3.0 (Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act) which was recently introduced in the Senate by Senators Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Portman of Ohio. If approved, it will provide over $900 million which will directly benefit all people who have suffered the consequences of addiction. It is a narrative, however, that needs to have an increased focus on alcohol, and I simply do not understand why it is ignored.

Alcohol kills more people annually than all other drugs combined. It is by far the most harmful drug, three times more harmful than cocaine or tobacco. (Although tobacco kills more annually) Alcohol is a disease that can not only directly cause death, but it also directly causes multiple diseases beyond addiction.

The fact is that alcohol is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States.  95,000 people die annually from alcohol related causes. So why the silence?

More then half of all alcohol deaths are due to health issues of too much drinking over a long period of time. Issues such as cancer, liver and heart disease. And the short-term use of large amounts of alcohol, are just as harrowing. Short term heavy use is why alcohol shortens lives by an average of 29 years. This abuse causes death from poisoning’s combined with another substance (drugs), suicide and motor vehicle crashes.

And then there is the evidence of the profound impact alcohol use has on the body and brain. Even limited amounts of alcohol have a negative impact on the brain. Among many impacts, its use affects cardiovascular health, and increases the risk of stroke. It actually shrinks the brain and causes poor circulation. Dementia is a direct impact of alcohol use, and it causes nutritional deficiencies that cause long term damage, not to mention mental health issues such as mood, depression and personality disorders.

Alcohol Abuse Causes Permanent Damage to Society and Family

There is also the social and criminal impact alcohol has on society. Of the 3 million violent crimes that occur in America annually, alcohol is involved in 40% of them. 37% of rapes and sexual assaults involve alcohol. 15% of all robberies, 27% of aggravated assaults, and 25% of all simple assaults involve people who have been drinking alcohol.

The impact on families and intimate partners is even more staggering. 50% of all homicides and assaults between intimate partners involve alcohol. It is clearly the driving force behind the upswing in domestic violence. 70% of all alcohol related incidents of violence occur in the home, most after 11 PM and 20% of those incidents involve weapons.

Alcohol Needs a Tobacco Reaction in Washington

So, while 95,000 Americans die each year from alcohol related causes, should our elected officials at least be expected to ask questions about this as a crisis or epidemic on its own? After all, government has taken strong steps to regulate and control other substances which kill Americans. Tobacco is a primary example of what can and should be done with alcohol, yet alcohol seems to be going in the opposite direction with regulators compared to tobacco.

On April 1, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which banned cigarette ads from airing on television and radio. In 1998 more restrictions were imposed on cigarette advertising. New rules included bans on transit and billboard advertisements, paid brand product placement, cartoons, tobacco brand sponsorships of sporting events and concerts.

And in 2009 Congress passed The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which gave the Food and Drug Administration even more authority to regulate tobacco products. The act banned the use of vending machines, and it mandates that all cigarette sales be face to face only, to assure minors could not buy cigarettes.

To be sure, the tobacco industry deserved the harsh and strong regulation, they had time and time again proven themselves incapable of honesty and transparency on disclosing the harm of tobacco use. In 2006 the federal courts ruled that the cigarette industry had violated federal racketeering laws, by fraudulently claiming that “low Tar and “light” cigarettes were less harmful, when in fact the companies knew they were not.

And while many studies have shown alcohol abuse in its totality kills as many as tobacco, alcohol has gotten no such attention from our elected officials; it is the illegal drug use that garners the attention and headlines.

Recent trends actually show that the exposure and advertising of alcohol products on the rise. While beer and wine have long been an advertising staple on television, it was only in 1996 that hard liquor began widespread advertising on television. Today the average American can expect to be exposed to over 600 ads annually for alcohol products. And while that may not seem like a huge amount, with a population of 330 million, the effect adds up quickly. A Cornell University study has shown a clear parallel between increases in advertising exposure to drinking behavior.

Like all product advertising, alcohol ads are extremely targeted. Men are twice as likely to see ads for alcohol. And African Americans will see 150 more ads annually then white people. This alone should be of concern, as once again, something that effects the health and well-being of individuals is disproportionately skewed towards communities which are the most vulnerable. And with the ever-growing marketing efforts on social media platforms, it is only going to become more targeted, to include our youth. The lack of adequate age restriction guidelines and controls should concern every parent.

I am not certain why alcohol is getting lost in the conversation when it comes to understanding and reacting to the addiction crisis in America. Perhaps it has to do with the beer, wine and liquor lobby, which spends over $15 million annually in Washington DC. After all, the folks selling illegal drugs are not pressuring elected officials for favor. It is the legal addictive product makers keeping the pressure on for less regulation.

Or perhaps it is simply that alcohol is so much a part our American fabric, that we have become immune to its negative effects, and we simply are not capable of seeing alcohol for what it is, a killer!

What I do know however, and this is based on my experience in the addiction treatment field, and as a person raised in a household wounded by the effects of alcohol addiction, where silence was the golden rule. That by not asking questions, and by denying the reality of alcohol abuse, the issue will not only never get better, but will continue to deteriorate. It is well past time that America, both its citizens and our elected officials recognize what alcohol abuse has become in America, an epidemic in its own right!