Six people in US die each day from alcohol poisoning, CDC reports

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: (Published 08 January 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h105
  1. Michael McCarthy
  1. 1Seattle

More than 2200 people die from alcohol poisoning in the United States each year, an average of six a day, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported.

Alcohol poisoning is typically the result of binge drinking, which is defined as consuming four or more drinks on one occasion in women and five or more drinks in men. Binge drinking is common, the CDC said, as about 38 million US adults report binge drinking an average of four times a month, consuming an average of eight drinks each time. Most binge drinkers, the agency said, are not alcohol dependent.

In the new study1 researchers looked at death certificate data covering 2010-12 collected by the US National Vital Statistics System. They found that an annual average of 2221 deaths a year from alcohol poisoning had occurred in that period, a rate of 8.8 deaths in a million.

Most of the deaths occurred not among young people but among adults aged 35-64, who accounted for 1681 (76%) of the deaths from alcohol poisoning. Most of the deaths (1696; 76.4%) were among men, the highest death rates occurring in men aged 45-54, at 25.6 deaths in a million. By contrast, only 44 deaths a year from alcohol poisoning (2.0%) involved people aged 15-20. Alcohol dependence played a role in only about 30% of deaths, the CDC said.

Ileana Arias, CDC principal deputy director, and Robert D Brewer, a coauthor, said in a telephone briefing with reporters that they had been surprised to learn that the highest death rates were not among teens and young adults. “But at the same time,” Brewer added, “when we stepped back and reflected a bit, we know that most of the binge drinking episodes, which are over 1.5 billion in the United States per year, are among people who are 26 and older.

“In fact, contrary to conventional wisdom, there is a lot of binge drinking that’s going on by people who are post-college age.”

Although non-Hispanic white people accounted for most of the deaths from alcohol poisoning—1500 deaths (67.5%), equal to a rate of 8.8 in a million—the highest rate of deaths was among Native Americans and Alaska Natives, at 49.1 in a million. The rate among non-Hispanic black people was 6.2, and among Hispanic people it was 9.0. The lowest rate was among Asian/Pacific Island people, at 2.2 in a million.

Death rates from alcohol poisoning also varied by state, from a low of 5.3 in a million in Alabama to a high of 46.5 in a million in Alaska. “States with the highest death rates were located mostly in the Great Plains and western United States, but also included two New England states (Rhode Island and Massachusetts),” the report said.

Although screening and brief interventions have been recommended for excessive alcohol use, the report said that only one in six US adults overall, one in five current drinkers, and one in four binge drinkers reported ever discussing alcohol use with a doctor or health professional.

In the teleconference Arias noted that communities can take a number of measures that have been shown to reduce alcohol consumption, such as regulating the number and concentration of alcohol retailers in the community, preventing illegal sales, and adopting price strategies that discourage excessive drinking.

Consumers who choose to drink should do so in moderation, defined as a maximum of one drink a day in women and two in men, Arias said. Help should also be sought for anyone showing signs of alcohol poisoning, she said—namely, an inability to wake up, vomiting, seizures, low or irregular breathing or heart rate, low body temperature, bluish skin color, or paleness.


Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h105


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