Pandemic boom in alcohol deaths part of larger local and national trends, warn researchers

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WISCONSIN (CBS 58) -- A new study says alcohol-related deaths are spiking across the nation, but even more so here in the state of Wisconsin, going up 25% in 2020.

Researchers with the Wisconsin Policy Forum said this could be caused by a variety of things, and while disruptions to physical and mental health care, along with substance abuse treatment during the pandemic definably are part of it, this is something that was happening for a long time already.

"We looked at data that kind of gave us a sense of how much Wisconsinites drink, and it might not be that surprising, but Wisconsin is among one of the heaviest drinking states in the country," said Ari Brown, researcher with Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Brown said nationally, people between 45 and 64 die from alcohol use at 33.5 people per 100,000, but here in Wisconsin it's 41.3 per 100,000.

"We've seen that rate increasing, basically every year over the course of the 21st century."

While the study shows all age groups are impacted, researchers said it's much worse for older people, something Maureen Busalacchi with the Wisconsin Alcohol Policy Project said lines up.

"You see people who are doing damage to themselves over a long period of time," said Busalacchi.

The study looks at things like alcoholic liver disease, mental and behavioral disorders due to the use of alcohol, and alcohol poisoning, not indirect deaths like drunk driving, meaning the issue may be even worse than the numbers let on.

"It's time where we take a step back and say we need to change this culture, and we can do it. And much of what happens is actually on the local level," said Busalacchi.

Researchers said things like controlling access to alcohol or the number of liquor licenses given out could have an impact on this, but they say they aren't trying to advocate for specific policies.

"If there's any advocating that we're doing, it's saying this is a problem and we do feel like it warrants some kind of response from policy makers," said Mark Sommerhauser with the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Researchers said before the 21st century, the alcohol-related death numbers here in Wisconsin were in line with the national numbers.

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to get help at 1-800-662-4357.

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