Read an Excerpt
Our Number One Health Problem
When Most of us hear the words, "Have a drink," we think of a cold beer on a hot day, a cocktail after a hard day of work, or a fine wine with a good meal, all very pleasant things indeed. We are probably not over-conscious of the fact that it is the chemical ingredient alcohol that supplies the pleasantness, but it has been making things pleasant for us for centuries. No one knows exactly when alcohol was discovered, but it probably dates back to a time when the first caveman munched a few fermented berries and found himself yodeling at the moon.
Alcohol has been with us for a long time.
It is the key ingredient in what has become our nation's number one health problem today alcoholism. Alcoholism and alcohol abuse (and they are not the same thing) cause between them an incalculable amount of physical, emotional, and spiritual damage to many individuals in our society and to society as a whole.
The impact of alcohol misuse is tremendous. Over half of the fifty thousand or so souls who perish in accidents on our highways each year do so because a drunk was behind the wheel of a car either his or her own or someone else's. We read that cirrhosis of the liver ranks eighth on the list of fatal diseases, and that in seven out of eight cases of cirrhosis, alcohol was the cause. We know that a third of all suicides are alcoholics, that a large percentage of violent crime is alcohol related, that many families break up because of drinking problems, and that most cities have areas known as skid rows, where decrepit oldmen in moth-eaten overcoats sit in doorways sipping cheap wine from bottles hidden inside paper bags.
These things are true and tragic, but most of us do not worry about them until they get close to home.
We know other things about drinking, such as the fact that Americans spend some $16 billion a year on beer, and that taxes on alcoholic beverages raise large amounts of revenue for state and federal governments. We do not hear very much about alcoholism not in public, at least. But occasionally we become aware of the impact that it has on many millions of lives.
Not long ago, an accident occurred near my home. A man, obviously drunk, passed out on the railroad tracks and had his arm severed by a train. A little girl discovered the arm and told her parents, who reported it to the police. With the aid of dogs, they found him holed up in an abandoned house where he had crawled all alone to die. They took him to a hospital. The doctors treated him as best they could, but it is unlikely that anyone addressed the man's real problem: his alcoholism.
This story is true, too. A young girl returned home from school one day to find her mother drunk and unconscious on the living room couch for the tenth time in as many days. She calmly walked into her father's den, took a shotgun from the gun rack, went back to where her mother lay, and emptied both barrels into her head. She reloaded the rifle and turned it on herself.
When we are close to something like that, alcoholism becomes very real. All of us, regardless of who we are or where we live, have been exposed to it at one time or another. Who does not have a friend or relative who cannot make it to the family reunion at Christmas any more? Or an aunt or uncle who is no longer the subject of family conversation? Or friends or co-workers who like to have a nip or two in the morning just to get their heads on straight? Alcoholism is a reality that touches all of us. The collective impact of all the many facets of alcohol use and abuse truly constitutes our number one health problem. Alcoholism is third on the list of fatal diseases in the United States, and that statistic does not even take into account that alcohol has been implicated in the number one and two killers heart disease and cancer. It also does not count the cases where alcoholism was not identified as the cause of death, as when a body is burned beyond recognition in an automobile accident or in a bedroom fire. It does not count the prison population, which includes many who got there as a result of crimes committed while drunk. Nor does it include broken homes, wrecked lives, lost children, and dashed hopes the kinds of things that rarely make headlines.
However we total up the score, whatever kinds of labels we put on it, alcoholism touches us all, far more than we realize until we stop to think about it. When we look more closely, we begin to see just how serious it really is.
Since one out of every four Americans lives with or is intimately connected to an alcoholic as a son, daughter, brother, sister, spouse, or friend, it is safe to assume that you know one. Somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of all adult Americans are alcoholics. No one knows how many more are in the early stages of the disease. Whether the number of alcoholics is as low as five million or as high as thirty-six million, or even higher, every one of them affects an average of six other people. In other words, well over half of all Americans are touched somehow by this disease.
People are also affected by drinking acquaintances in the workplace. Industry calls alcoholism the "billion-dollar hangover." The true figure of what alcohol costs industry is estimated to be in the tens of billions. No one knows for sure how much excess drinking costs in accidents, lost time, insurance payments, lower production, and high turnover. The amount of attention that industry is beginning to pay to alcohol related problems is a measure of how serious the problem is.