Alcoholism and drunken driving have been a problem in New Mexico for so long it’s easy to become numb and not recognize the full impact of alcohol’s destructive force in the state.
A decline in the rate of fatal crashes involving alcohol can create a false impression N.M.’s alcohol “problem” is improving when the data indicate it’s as bad as ever, if not worse.
In fact, not only does New Mexico have the highest alcohol-related death rate in the nation, its rate is double that of the national average. Consider:
• An average of five people died every day of alcohol-related causes in New Mexico in 2020.
• One in five deaths among working-age adults (20-64) in New Mexico is attributable to alcohol.
And it’s not drunken driving that is driving the numbers.
Alcohol-related chronic liver disease caused about a third of the 1,878 alcohol-related deaths in New Mexico in 2020, making it the most common cause of alcohol-related death in the state. According to the New Mexico Department of Health, New Mexico’s death rate of 86.6 per 100,000 population that year was more than double the national rate of 41.5 per 100,000.
Those numbers are considerably higher than figures lawmakers heard Wednesday in an all-day hearing dedicated to examining the role of alcohol in crime, disease and death in New Mexico. The numbers they saw were several years older, but they were still shocking, and a wakeup call for lawmakers.
The Senate Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee was shown U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers from 2011-2015. Adjusted for age and population, the CDC estimated New Mexico averaged 53 deaths a year attributed to alcohol per 100,000 people, compared to a national rate of 28 deaths. The numbers are based on deaths connected to excessive alcohol use, including binge drinking and chronic health conditions, car crashes and homicide.
“This is mind numbing to me that we would be double other states,” said Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a Las Cruces Democrat and co-chairman of the committee. “We’re not just worse, we’re off the charts.”
Meanwhile, decades of public-awareness campaigns on the consequences of driving drunk along with a rise of ride-sharing services have helped curb the number of drunken driving fatalities in New Mexico, although we still rank high among states with the biggest drunken driving issues in the nation.
New Mexicans drink to excess at higher rates than residents of other states.
We’re the nation’s town drunk. One in seven New Mexicans binge drink, according to NMDOH. Even when we’re smart enough not to get behind the wheel when buzzed, excessive alcohol consumption triggers incidents of violence, injury and chronic disease. Alcohol plays a significant role in suicide, child maltreatment, traffic crashes, injuries caused by firearms and homicide. All of these problems carry a tremendous social and economic cost.
A dated Centers for Disease Control figure from 2010 says excessive alcohol use costs New Mexico $2.2 billion — more than $1,000 per New Mexico resident per year. It’s hard to believe that figure hasn’t grown over the ensuing decade.
New Mexico has long recognized we have a problem. But Wednesday’s hearing shows once again that New Mexico’s alcohol problem is much bigger than DWIs.
Aryan Showers, director of the Office of Policy and Accountability for the Department of Health, acknowledged the state’s alcohol trouble goes back decades. It may be a symptom, she said, of other societal ills and not easily fixed by more strictly regulating alcohol.
But lawmakers would do well to measure the impacts of the many aspects of the 2021’s Liquor Control Act to determine how each piece impacts public health outcomes. Remember that’s the same law that gave McKinley County retailers the choice to sell either gas or liquor, but not both, and they picked …. liquor.
It also banned the sale of miniature bottles of liquor for off-site consumption, but made it easier for restaurants to acquire licenses to sell liquor, allowed existing license holders to make home deliveries of alcohol and allowed restaurants and bars to sell beer, wine and cocktails starting at 7 a.m. on Sundays rather than 11 a.m. There were good arguments for all of these moves, but the state should do follow-up studies to weigh their impact.
Some lawmakers Wednesday took note of a recent series by New Mexico In Depth, a nonprofit news organization, on the state’s trouble with alcohol. The series, “Blind Drunk,” concluded the state has largely neglected the crisis even as it grows worse.
The series noted the state’s alcohol taxes — which public health scientists say should be proportional to the true social cost of alcohol — have fallen to their lowest real value in 30 years.
Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said the 2021 reforms could be the start of more changes, including how we tax alcohol.
Lawmakers on Wednesday didn’t embrace any particular solution. Among the ideas that came up were expanding technology in cars to detect alcohol use by the driver (the 2021 federal infrastructure bill includes this on new cars thanks in great part to the advocacy of U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M.); making liquor less available at convenience stores; reducing the 0.08% presumed level of intoxication for blood alcohol content; and improving behavioral health programs.
Meanwhile, NMDOH intends to bolster its surveillance and data collection on fetal alcohol syndrome and other alcohol-related problems to give policymakers more information on how to address the issue.
Last week’s hearing sounded the alarm that lawmakers need to get this issue on the front burner.
Because alcohol continues to devastate New Mexicans’ health, safety, pocketbooks and quality of life.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.