Rise in Deaths Spurs Effort to Elevate Alcohol Taxes

Alcohol-related deaths also rose during the pandemic, up 25 percent in 2020 from the previous year. But deaths – which have surpassed 140,000 statewide – have been rising in every state for decades. Few places have seen a bigger increase than Oregon, where the rate of alcohol-related deaths increased 2.5-fold from 1999 to 2020 after adjusting for the state’s changing age distribution.

Ms. Grove’s only son, Jonathon, started drinking to excess in college, she said, but managed to work for years as a pharmacy technician at Oregon Health Sciences University despite his worsening addiction. Cheap beer and white wine were his weaknesses. “He always thought he didn’t drink hard alcohol, so he wasn’t really an alcoholic,” Ms. Grove said. He died in a cheap hotel surrounded by empty cans and shipping containers.

Various studies in recent years indicate that even moderate drinking poses a health risk, including for the heart. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that men should have no more than two drinks per day and women no more than one.

dr Eric Roth, director of emergency medicine at Kaiser Permanente’s two Portland-area hospitals, estimated that 10 to 30 percent of his patients had illnesses or injuries that were at least partially related to alcohol use. “It’s always been a big problem,” he said, “and it’s becoming a bigger problem.”

To counteract substance abuse, Oregon has emphasized education and treatment to combat substance abuse. A ballot measure passed in 2020 that decriminalized possession of small amounts of any drug also resulted in hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars being diverted from marijuana to confiscation services, including alcohol. That summer, Oregon sponsored a “Rethink the Drink” campaign.

dr Tim Naimi, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria, called awareness campaigns a “fig leaf” and said the treatment, while helpful, was more like parking an ambulance under a cliff than fencing off the precipice to prevent people from falling. Measures to prevent excessive drinking are less costly and more effective, he said. “If you want to talk about prevention, you have to talk about politics.”

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