At least five alcohol-related deaths occur each day in the state of Colorado.
Colorado’s prevailing alcohol culture contributes to an atmosphere rich in excessive drinking, which is reflected by the number of people seeking treatment for alcohol addiction each year. The portion of the population that engages in excessive drinking in Colorado has hovered around 20% since 2017 according to the American Health Rankings and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, ranking the state two percentage points above the national average (18%).
Recent treatment admissions data for alcohol-related addiction in Colorado also reflected the problem alcohol poses in the state. Admissions data for alcohol-related addiction was well above the national average for alcohol as a both a primary and secondary addiction (59% of Colorado treatment admissions were alcohol related compared to 28% nationally).
|Admitted for Alcohol
|Admitted for Alcohol
and Another Substance
Drug Use in the Centennial State
In 2018, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 974 deaths from drug overdoses, a reduction from 1,012 in 2017. Despite this overall decline, heroin and methamphetamine use in Colorado has skyrocketed in the last decade, which is evident by the steady increase of overdose deaths recorded by the Colorado Health Institute. Given the acceptance and legality of alcohol, the Colorado meth problem and Colorado opioid crisis have demanded much of the focus of statewide prevention and treatment programs.
Heroin and Meth Are Prominent, But Alcohol Prevails
In 2018, meth overdoses in Colorado contributed to 33% of all drug overdoses with 318 deaths, second only to the 349 prescription opioid overdose deaths. Heroin overdoses accounted for 24% of overdoses, a sizable increase from 12% in 2010. However, despite a 40% increase in admissions for meth addiction between 2014 and 2018, and a staggering 89% increase for heroin during the same timeframe, alcohol has retained the most treatment admissions in Colorado since 2009.
Colorado alcohol abuse statistics also indicate that drinkers begin using alcohol at a younger age than most other substances (age 15) and use for decades before seeking treatment (around 20 years).
Colorado’s Permissive Alcohol Environment
Colorado has a long history of embracing alcohol consumption, dating back to the 1800s gold rush through present day beer festivals and historic exhibits celebrating the brew culture that can be found in many major Colorado cities. With one in five adults admitting to excessive drinking (or more than one in four in cities like Denver), Colorado beer enthusiasts continue to support the multitude of microbreweries that make up the state’s drinking culture.
In fact, while Colorado is home to only 1.7% of US residents, the state hosts almost 400 breweries, more than nearly any other state. This atmosphere undoubtedly contributes to the booze-friendly environment that is supportive of excessive drinking. Sadly, this setting also contributes to the one of the highest levels of alcohol-related deaths per year in the United States.
Alcohol Use in El Paso County
El Paso county is home to Colorado Springs, one of the largest cities in the state. County Health Rankings & Roadmaps estimates the rate of excessive drinking in El Paso county is 18%, which is below the state average of 20%. Despite this, the county is witness to widespread detrimental effects of alcohol misuse. Impaired driver-related fatalities in El Paso county are among the highest in the state, according to the El Paso Sheriff’s department. Further, over 40% of driving deaths in El Paso County were attributed to alcohol impairment in County Health Rankings & Roadmaps estimates, surpassing both the state (33%) and national rates (25%).
In response to this, nearly twice the amount of DUI arrests were made in 2017-2018 as in the preceding year. The intent within the Sheriff’s department is to reduce the occurrence of alcohol-related accidents in El Paso county, and in Colorado Springs specifically.
Using Alcohol to Cope In Times of Crisis
The global outbreak of the Coronavirus has created the need to quarantine or enforce social distancing measures, eliciting stress, panic and fear among many individuals. Using alcohol as a coping mechanism has historically been recorded as a response to comparable traumatic events (for example, during the SARS outbreak), as stress is widely understood to be a substance abuse trigger. As many businesses close indefinitely, alcohol sales have skyrocketed, supporting the notion that drinking has a perceived connection to stress relief.
The Issues With Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism
Alcohol is considered an essential service, allowing alcohol use to run rampant during quarantine and lockdown. Drinking is often used to placate many emotions, from boredom to stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, excessive drinking contributes to a host of problems in virtually every part of the human body and prohibits the immune system from properly impeding disease.
Physical Effects of Alcohol
- Lungs: Alcohol causes inflammation in the lungs allowing the host to become an easy target for lung infections.
- Heart: High blood pressure, irregular heartbeats, and strokes can all be alcohol-induced.
- Liver: Inflammation of the liver resulting in cirrhosis, fibrosis, and hepatitis are classic symptoms of liver damage from alcohol.
- Pancreas: The pancreas produces toxic materials as a result of alcohol use which can eventually lead to pancreatitis, pancreas damage from alcohol.
- Cancer Risk: Excessive alcohol use increases the risk of numerous cancers, including esophageal, head/neck, liver, breast, and colorectal.
Psychological Effects of Alcohol
- Brain: Alcohol interferes with the way the brain works, resulting in alterations in mood and ability to think clearly (deemed alcohol brain fog).
- Anxiety: Alcohol and anxiety are so intertwined in frequent drinkers’ mentality that the slang term “hangxiety” was coined to describe the elevated angst encountered during alcohol withdrawals and hangovers (this is due to changes in the brain caused by alcohol).
- Stress: Contrary to popular belief, alcohol does not reduce stress in the body. Alcohol actually interferes with the body’s cortisol levels and the ability to handle stress naturally.
- Suicide Risk: Excessive alcohol use has been linked to suicide. In El Paso county specifically, 36% of suicides resulting in an autopsy had alcohol in the system.
Alcohol’s Effects on the Lungs Specifically
Given the toll that alcohol takes on a person’s system, it is actually contradictory to alleviating stress due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In fact, heavy alcohol use may actually increase susceptibility to the Coronavirus and worse the intensity. The connection between alcohol-use disorder and pulmonary infection is well documented and lung damage among seemingly healthy individuals may not become apparent until a respiratory infection hits.
Alcohol misuse during isolation may also encourage a host of other problematic behaviors to increase (i.e. domestic violence), contributing negatively to an already stressful situation. Rather than leaning on alcohol to weather the storm, implementing a strategy of healthy coping mechanisms could be far more conducive to peacefully surviving the Coronavirus pandemic.
Ways to Cope Without Alcohol
Rather than grabbing a drink to lessen stress, try these activities first:
- Mindfulness/Meditation: Mindful meditation has been found to alleviate stress and contribute positively to mental health.
- Breathwork: Deep breathing lowers stress in the body. Incorporating breathing techniques in response to stressors could lower situational anxiety.
- Journaling: Documenting feelings can assist in processing overwhelming emotions. Similarly, practicing gratitude while journaling reduces stress and increases optimism.
- Exercise: Moderate exercise has long been understood to aid in stress reduction through a release of feel-good endorphins and immune boosting health benefits.
Agreeing to try one or a few of these alternatives before reaching for alcohol may at least reduce the number of occasions alcohol is used to cope with stress.
Getting Help for Alcohol Addiction
Colorado cities statewide witness the effects of alcohol addiction. If you or someone you know could benefit from treatment for alcohol addiction or misuse, The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake offers personalized inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation programs, as well as medically assisted detox, co-occurring disorder programs, and aftercare planning. Telehealth and distance treatment has also been made available during the COVID-19 outbreak.
- American Health Rankings.org. “2019 Annual Health Report.” January 2020. Accessed April 10, 2020.
- Assets-coroner.elpasoco.com. “2018 El Paso County Coroner’s Report.” March 2019. Accessed April 11, 2020.
- Boone, Eli. “More Coloradans Died From Meth Overdoses in 2018 Than Ever Before.” Colorado Health Institute, October 18, 2019. Accessed April 11, 2020.
- Brewersassociation.org. “Colorado’s Craft Beer Sales & Production Statistics, 2018.” January 2019. Accessed April 13, 2020.
- CDC.gov. “What Is Excessive Alcohol Use?” January 2020. Accessed April 13, 2020.
- Colorado.gov. “Excessive alcohol use prevention and data.” January 2020. Accessed April 10, 2020.
- Census.gov. “Quick Facts Colorado.” January 2020. Accessed April 13, 2020.
- Coloradohealthrankings.org. “El Paso.” January 2020. Accessed April 11, 2020.
- Colorado.gov. “2019 Colorado Drug Trends Report.” August 2019. Accessed April 11, 2020.
- Dasis.samhsa.gov. “Quick Statistics.” January 2020. Accessed April 9, 2020.