If alcohol were an illegal drug, it might be easier to see how dangerous it is.

According to the National Institutes of Health, it kills 88,000 Americans every year — more than twice as many deaths as are caused by opioid overdoses, a crisis that was declared a national emergency last week by President Donald Trump.

But unlike illegal drugs such as heroin, alcohol does not hide in the shadows. There are lethal doses of it in brightly colored packaging on the shelves of supermarkets and convenience stores in every corner of Maine. And instead of drug gangs getting rich off the addicts’ misery, it’s the state that directly profits from alcohol sales, with drinkers who have the biggest problems producing the biggest share of the revenue.

This is a problem Maine cannot afford to ignore. Like opioid addiction, alcohol abuse is a serious public health crisis that requires government intervention to minimize the number of lives lost or ruined.

Even if it means cutting profits, the state should use its power to make this drug harder to get.

Alcohol abuse is caused by the some of the same psychological and social factors as the opioid addiction crisis, and like that national emergency, evidence is mounting that abusive drinking is getting worse.


The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study last week that revealed alarming increases in both high-risk drinking (five or more drinks per occasion for a man at least once a week, or four or more drinks for a woman) and alcohol-use disorders, the clinical term for alcohol addiction.

Unlike other studies that rely on unverified self-reporting, this study used face-to-face interviews with 40,000 participants in two waves, 10 years apart.

The researchers found a 49.4 percent increase in alcohol use disorders, from 8.5 percent in 2001 and 2002 to 12.7 percent a decade later, but the increase was not evenly distributed.

There were much greater than average increases in alcohol use disorders among women (84 percent), which can be expected to lead to birth defects and negligent parenting.

People with incomes below $20,000 a year or those who have less than a high school education also saw above average increases in alcohol disorders.

But the most alarming data was related to age. People between 45 and 64 reported an 81.5 percent increase in alcohol use disorders over a decade, and the rate of people over 65 with those disorders more than doubled in 10 years, increasing by 106 percent.


These finding should ring an alarm bell for Maine, a relatively poor state with the oldest median age in the nation. Anything that affects these demographic groups is going to hit us with force.

Some of the worst consequences of excessive drinking are so common that they may pass unnoticed. Alcohol’s death toll is not limited to poisoning or car crashes. It also includes tens of thousands of people who die every year from preventable liver disease, cancers and heart disease. These are often start as chronic conditions that result in years of suffering, lost productivity and exorbitant health care costs, which are paid by others through taxes and insurance premiums.

What Maine needs is a re-commitment to public health, after seven years of neglect under Gov. Paul LePage.

Just as with illegal drugs and cigarettes, the state should employ programs that prevent young people from starting high-risk drinking, strictly enforce the laws limiting who can drink or where they can drink, and offering treatment to people with abuse disorders so they can undo any damage done.

And the state should use its regulatory authority to boost alcohol prices — not to increase profits but to discourage sales to the people who need liquor least.

If we are going to collect the profits, we are responsible for the consequences. Mainer’s can’t keep pretending that they don’t see the problem.

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