Rise in Deaths Spurs Effort to Raise Alcohol Taxes

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Deaths caused by drinking also rose during the pandemic, spiking 25 percent in 2020 over the previous year. But the deaths — which have topped 140,000 nationwide — have been rising for decades in every state. Few places have seen a greater uptick than Oregon, where the rate of alcohol-induced deaths grew 2.5 times from 1999 to 2020, after adjusting for the state’s changing age distribution.

Ms. Grove’s only son, Jonathon, had begun drinking excessively in college, she said, but managed to work as a pharmacy tech for years at Oregon Health Sciences University despite his worsening addiction. Cheap beer and white wine were his weaknesses. “He always thought that he wasn’t drinking hard alcohol, so he wasn’t really an alcoholic,” Ms. Grove said. He died in a cheap hotel, surrounded by empty cans and containers.

Various studies in recent years have suggested that even moderate drinking poses a health risk, including to the heart. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that men consume no more than two drinks a day and women no more than one.

Dr. Eric Roth, chief of emergency medicine at Kaiser Permanente’s two hospitals in the Portland area, estimated that 10 percent to 30 percent of his patients had illnesses or injuries at least partly linked to drinking. “It’s always been a big problem,” he said, “and it’s getting to be an increasingly big problem.”

To address substance abuse, Oregon has emphasized education and treatment to address substance use. A ballot measure passed in 2020 that decriminalized possession of small amounts of all drugs also diverted hundreds of millions of tax dollars from marijuana to recovery services, including for alcohol. This summer, Oregon sponsored a campaign to “Rethink the Drink.”

Dr. Tim Naimi, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria, labeled educational campaigns a “fig leaf” and said that treatment, while helpful, was akin to parking an ambulance beneath a cliff rather than fencing the precipice to prevent people from falling. Measures to prevent excessive drinking are less costly and more effective, he said. “If you want to talk prevention, you’ve got to talk policies.”.