U.S. States Ranked by Alcohol Poisoning Deaths

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Last week, the CDC released data that made big news: Six Americans die daily from alcohol poisoning. But, as usual, the most interesting information laid beyond the headlines.

The CDC ranked each U.S. state according to the (age-adjusted) death rate from alcohol poisoning. (Note: DC, DE, HI, ND, and VT were not included because the number of deaths was too low for reliable statistical analysis.) The results are reformatted in Excel and shown below:

Whoa. What is going on in Alaska? The explanation offered by the Boston Globe was that the large Native population in Alaska was to blame for the state’s high numbers.

There is a lot of truth to that assertion. By race, the CDC reports that Native Americans have the highest death rate from alcohol poisoning (49.1 per million). No other race comes close. (The second worst rate is for Hispanics at 9 per million.) Alaska and New Mexico, which had the highest rates of alcohol poisoning deaths, are also ranked #1 and #2, respectively, for percentage of population that is Native American, according to census data. Similarly, South Dakota and Oklahoma, which rank #3 and #4 in terms of percent Native population, also have high rates of alcohol poisoning deaths.

But, this does not explain all of the CDC’s findings. Montana, which ranks #5 for percent Native population, has an alcohol poisoning death rate that is below the national average of 8.8 deaths per million. And, Hawaii, which has a large Native population (though they are not technically considered “Native Americans”), has so few deaths from alcohol poisoning that the CDC did not consider the state in its analysis.

So, what explains the unusually high alcohol poisoning death rates in Alaska and New Mexico? Perhaps it is sheer boredom. Boredom, as it turns out, is a risk factor for substance abuse.

Consider life in Alaska. It’s a beautiful state, but in the winter time, sunlight is scarce. On the shortest day of the year, Anchorage, the most populous city, receives merely 5.5 hours of sun; Fairbanks gets less than 4 hours. It is quite possible that living a substantial portion of one’s life in what must feel like never-ending darkness drives some people toward alcoholism.

How about New Mexico? Boredom probably plays a role there, too. In the U.S. West, many Native Americans live on reservations, which are notoriously poverty-stricken. And poverty, which can lead to boredom, is itself linked to substance abuse.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Vital Signs: Alcohol Poisoning Deaths — United States, 2010–2012 .” MMWR 63 (53): 1238-1242. January 9, 2015.