Alcohol hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Here are tools to report on it, whether your beat is health, crime, business, or politics.

Drinking is involved in a huge and rising number of illnesses and injuries nationwide yet rarely receives attention by reporters in proportion to that harm. Whether your beat is health, traffic safety, violent crime, business, culture, or politics, alcohol is a big untapped opportunity. 

New Mexico In Depth’s series Blind Drunk was based on more than 150 interviews and data obtained from more than a dozen national, state, and local agencies. The focus was on New Mexico but many of the same data and techniques can be readily applied in other states. Here we describe resources that other reporters may find valuable in their own investigations.

Measuring drinking behaviors

The more a person drinks, the greater effect on health. Reporting about alcohol’s impact on a population therefore requires a basic understanding of who drinks and how much they consume. Several federal datasets illuminate local patterns of drinking including by people of specific ages, genders, races, and ethnicities. 

  • States vary widely in their drinking behaviors. Because there is no direct measure of how much alcohol residents drink, researchers infer “apparent consumption” from taxes paid by alcohol producers. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism compiles state tax data for purposes of estimating apparent consumption, along with other reports.
  • As important as the total volume of alcohol consumed in a state is how the drinking is distributed among people within it. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducts an annual survey, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), designed to provide estimates of the share of people in each state who drink in ways known to pose a risk for illness and injury, including heavily or in binges. 
  • The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) measures the share of people in each state who drank in the last month and the share who meet criteria for an alcohol use disorder, among other indicators.
  • To better understand patterns in youth drinking, the CDC runs the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), which provides insights into the share of youth experimenting with alcohol and at what age they begin.

Measuring deaths related to drinking and risk factors

Alcohol killed over 140,000 people in the U.S. in 2020, more than any illegal substance. The crisis goes underrecognized, in part, because the deaths it causes are diverse: traffic crashes, violence, exposure, falls, and illnesses in which the role of alcohol is sometimes difficult to distinguish. Reporters can use various data sets to describe patterns in alcohol-related deaths whether by geography, demography, or over time. 

  • The CDC’s portal Wide-ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research (WONDER) provides easy access to mortality data by underlying cause of death going back to 1999, and has a tool for grouping causes of death induced by alcohol. 
  • Alcohol-induced deaths under-represent alcohol’s total impact because they exclude causes of death where alcohol isn’t easy to single out. So the CDC offers an Alcohol-Related Disease Impact (ARDI) application that estimates a more accurate total of deaths due to excessive alcohol use, re-calculated every five years.  
  • The CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) illuminates the role alcohol plays in violent deaths, including homicides and suicides, by compiling medical and law enforcement data. In many cases, the decedent’s blood toxicology and any evidence of a history of alcohol dependence are among the data collected. NVDRS data is not publicly accessible but a state NVDRS coordinator, usually a member of the health department, can typically produce custom analyses upon request. 
  • To assess the changing role alcohol plays in traffic crashes, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can provide data on total crashes including the share involving alcohol, along with the number of registered drivers and vehicle miles traveled to adjust crash rates for the country’s ever-increasing time on the road. The agency’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which captures every fatal accident on the nation’s public roadways, offers particularly detailed data.

The policy environment

Since Prohibition, states have adopted a variety of systems for regulating the sale and consumption of alcohol. Local laws and the strength of their enforcement influence how people drink, and the consequences alcohol has on them and society at large. 

  • Seventeen states and jurisdictions control the sale of distilled spirits and in some cases wine and beer by selling alcohol directly. The National Alcohol Beverage Control Association (NABCA) is a useful resource for reporters in these areas. 
  • Decades of studies have consistently shown that price is among the biggest factors influencing excess alcohol consumption. States set different alcohol tax rates for different beverages. Researchers compiled the state rates as of 2015, as did the Trust for America’s Health. The Tax Policy Center also keeps a running list.
  • In New Mexico, researchers with the library of the Legislative Council Service provided crucial assistance hunting down historical laws that altered New Mexico’s tax rates over the last 40 years. Alcohol taxes are typically set by the volume of the beverage consumed rather than its price, so as inflation pushes prices higher, the effective tax rate falls. Reporters should convert alcohol tax rates (which may be set by the liter or gallon) to standard drinks containing equivalent amounts of ethanol — 12 ounces of beer, 150 milliliters of wine, and 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits — and then adjust rates for inflation.
  • The National Institutes of Health maintains the Alcohol Policy Information System (APIS), a running list of changes in state alcohol policy.
  • Within New Mexico, the Regulation and Licensing Department (RLD)  has authority over licensing of businesses that sell alcohol and maintains data on how regulations over them are enforced. RLD can provide a current list of businesses licensed to sell alcohol and a count of businesses that have been sanctioned for example for overserving intoxicated people or selling to minors. 
  • Intoxicated driving is a prominent consequence of excess drinking. To measure how effectively laws against it are being enforced may require reviewing arrest data by multiple law enforcement agencies, court data on cases prosecuted and convicted, and a careful review of how people are sanctioned. In New Mexico, the Administrative Office of the Courts maintains statewide data on cases brought in the judiciary. The FBI Uniform Crime Reporting program maintains some data on arrests for people driving under the influence, but many law enforcement agencies fail to report their data so it is not a comprehensive count. 

Writing fairly and with compassion

Alcohol dependence is still a terribly stigmatized disease and writing about it takes care. The organization Reporting on Addiction provides a helpful style guide.

For reporting about how alcohol  affects Native people, I also relied on a style guide from the Native American Journalist Association.

BLIND DRUNK is a series examining New Mexico's neglected crisis of alcohol-related deaths:
Test your knowledge of alcohol in New Mexico