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Keeping Alcohol in the Spotlight: 6 Facts

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In the wake of Whitney Houston's tragic death, many people have talked about the late singer's problems with cocaine -- and how drugs affect the brain. When it was later speculated that prescription drugs mixed with alcohol may have led to Whitney's demise, people also talked about the dangers of painkiller abuse. But what about the dangers of excessive drinking, which can be equally life-threatening? As Frank Bruni wisely pointed out in the New York Times, alcohol is directly linked to about 80,000 deaths a year -- yet far too often, its dangers "recede from focus."

So, let's bring the destructive powers of alcohol into sharp focus. Here are the facts:

1. Alcohol is indeed a drug. What's more, it's a drug that carries especially high risks for adolescents, whose brains are still developing.

2. Alcohol is a financial burden. Excessive drinking is more harmful to the drinker and to society than any other drug, and costs society $224 billion annually.

3. More people abuse alcohol than illicit drugs. 8 percent of Americans over the age of 12 abuse illicit drugs. 34 percent abuse or misuse alcohol.

4. Alcohol destroys the brain. Long-term heavy drinking causes extensive, permanent changes in the brain including potentially fatal conditions such as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, commonly known as "wet brain." Also, heroin withdrawal is less likely to be fatal than alcohol withdrawal.

5. Just because alcohol is legal doesn't mean it's safe. We know that legal prescription drugs, if misused, are anything but harmless and cause a growing number of deaths each year. The same is true of alcohol. Drunk driving -- one of the many causes of alcohol-related fatalities -- accounted for 32 percent of all annual traffic deaths, as of 2008.

6. Alcohol-related deaths are preventable. In fact, heavy drinking, including binge and underage drinking, is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States. We must invest in education, screening and treatment efforts, so the public better understands alcohol's dangers, and a person struggling with alcoholism can get help -- before it's too late.

As I've said in the past, I'm not suggesting that we go back to Prohibition. Alcohol is society's oldest and most widely used mind-altering chemical; it's so ingrained in our culture, and so many use it without problems, that its unreasonable to imagine it ever becoming illegal for adults. But that's largely a case of history; it's not an indication that alcohol abuse is any less hazardous than abuse of other substances. If the toxicology report reveals that alcohol was a factor in Whitney's death, it wouldn't be the first time a celebrity who publicly battled illicit drugs died of alcohol-related causes. After all, as Bruni points out, Amy Winehouse's struggles with crack cocaine were well documented, but it was alcohol that ultimately killed her. Cocaine, heroin and now prescription drugs continue to occupy the headlines -- as indeed they should -- but alcohol deserves the same attention. Our nation's alcohol problem may not seem as scandalous, but it's just as serious.

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