About a month ago, the Centers for Disease control told Americans that, in no uncertain terms, one in 10 of us will die as a result of excessive alcohol consumption. One in 10. Yes, you read that right. And yes, it's a big number. These are working-age adults we're talking about too, most of whom are not alcoholics. One out of 10 adults sadly and frequently cut down in the primes of their lives. To the media's credit, the publication of this study made headlines (well, at least page four or five headlines) for a day or two. After that however, coverage declined on a sharper trajectory than ticket sales for a botched sequel and, one week out, the story that Al Gore might have titled A Buzz Kill of a Truth was left showing on virtually zero screens.
Death and disease are bummers -- I get it. And it's summertime after all -- who wants to talk about premature mortality and preventable illness with the rubbery smell of beach balls in the air? I mean, does anyone really want to discuss how that keg of beer next to Uncle Jerry might as well be the Reaper's own roulette wheel, innocently propped in a tub between the horseshoe pit and a buffet of mayonnaise "salads"? Seriously now, who's going to be up for a quick convo about the eye-popping link between adult beverages and the culling of our population? No thanks, but could you pass the mustard? I like to get all my condiments on the hot dog before the first bite.
If only the explanation was that simple for why this story isn't getting continued traction, why it didn't have legs, it would be an easy situation to remedy. Yes, if talking about a widespread health crisis that also has whopping economic consequences is just too tonally inconsistent with our national priorities to garner sustained interest during barbecue season, I'd have a quick fix for the situation indeed: Hey, CDC, bump that press release back a few months and let's take it again, from the top. The country will totally get behind this issue if you can just wait until the flip-flops are shelved for the year.
Unfortunately though, a quick scan of what is dominating our news headlines this summer will tell you that no, we Americans are not averse to heavy doses of serious news while vacationing. Whether it's the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Russia and the Ukraine, abducted Nigerian school girls, missing/downed Malaysian Airlines flights, immigration debacles in Texas or the Ebola virus, our news tickers are not allergic to the hard stuff. In fact, just the opposite. So why, then, haven't entire segments of newscasts, or veritable blocks of cable news programming been devoted to this story like they have those others? Why aren't the reams of paper or chunks of digital bandwidth reserved for Op-Eds being gobbled up by reactions, insight and advice about this humdinger of a downer, when it seems every flavor and stripe of pundit has got something to say about Gaza, Putin or the dangers of air travel? (*Preemptive disclaimer: I'm not minimizing the importance of those issues, but I am questioning why an issue that directly impacts the lifespan of one in ten Americans is unable to grab and hold our collective attention.)
If you're waiting for me to tell you what it is that's muffling what should otherwise be an ear busting wakeup call, I don't have a clear answer. Maybe it's just that improving the nation's physical health is not a big priority for most Americans, or that we don't seem to care much for our own personal wellbeing either, as evidenced by our choices. Or maybe it's something more diabolical, like the strong influence of the alcohol lobby, whose political contributions recently reached an all-time high, and whose increased advertising dollars have never had them them more snugly aligned with media and entertainment interests than they are now. Or maybe it's because in 2014, 64% of Americans drink, and reporting negative stories about things people like to do won't generate many clicks, sell many papers or snag many viewers. Perhaps it's the unfortunate collision of all these factors, and more, which has resulted in a distressingly flaccid arousal of interest in the forecast of our own liquid obituaries. Obituaries which, by the way, will frequently never reveal that the person died from drinking too much.
The CDC report identifies many types of death attributable to excessive alcohol consumption. Heart disease, cancer and liver disease are among the more slow-burning results of too much booze; violence, accidental falls, car crashes and alcohol poisoning among the more immediate. And you'll note, only one of these leaves behind the type of unambiguous postmortem indictment of the perpetrator that keeps no secrets: alcohol poisoning. As to the rest? Countless grieving families will either never know the killer's true identity, or they'll choose to bury it with their loved one.
Two weeks ago -- roughly two weeks after the CDC study made its perfunctory blip on our national radar -- I was giving a talk to an audience of several hundred attorneys in Los Angeles. Being germane to the subject I was discussing that day, I decided to ask for a quick show of hands about who had heard of this study -- who had heard that one in 10 American deaths are attributable to excessive alcohol consumption. Now, I wasn't exactly expecting a full and hearty crop of palms and digits to suddenly overtake the air, but I also wasn't expecting what I got. Zero, not one. Not one highly educated, presumably well-informed professional in the room knew what I was talking about.
Shameful, but I don't fault the audience. After all, if a story breaks and there's nobody there to cover it, did it ever really become a story? Don't believe me? Just ask Donald Sterling, LeBron James or Kim Kardashian. Oh, wait. Never mind.
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