New Mexico recorded second deadliest year for alcohol deaths in 2022

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ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO - JUNE 26, 2022: The alcohol department at a grocery store Albuquerque, NM on June 26, 2022. CREDIT: Adria Malcolm for New Mexico In Depth

Alcohol killed more than 2,000 New Mexicans in 2022, according to new data from the Department of Health, the third straight year the state exceeded that grim threshold. 

Although New Mexico has long suffered the nation’s highest rate of alcohol-related deaths, the crisis has often been overshadowed by the state’s other problems, such as  gun violence, an issue Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham spotlighted last week in her State of the State address.

She made no mention of alcohol, however. In recent years, deaths by drink in New Mexico have outstripped deaths by bullets nearly four to one.

Arriving as the state’s 30-day legislative session gets underway, the alcohol mortality data underscored the enormous stakes of debates about New Mexico’s drinking problem, which policymakers have clashed over in previous years but largely failed to address, even as the crisis worsened. The number of alcohol-related deaths in 2022 was 28% higher than 2018, the year Lujan Grisham was first elected governor.

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, called the numbers “disturbing,” and said there was a moral obligation to respond. “We are not going to move the needle on so many social problems in our state until we seriously address alcohol misuse,” she wrote in a text message.

Asked whether the state was making sufficient efforts to respond, a health department spokesperson emailed that the agency “acknowledges the gravity of the situation and is committed to addressing this public health issue.”  

But there has been little evidence of action. After last year’s session, the governor touted the start of a new Office of Alcohol Misuse Prevention, but the health department spokesperson confirmed that nearly a year later, it has yet to fill more than one of its 11 allocated positions.

A death is defined as ‘alcohol-related’ if its cause is attributable to drinking, whether it is a motor-vehicle crash with an intoxicated driver, lethal violence involving alcohol, or a deadly illness brought on by chronic drinking such as liver disease or some cancers.

In terms of these causes, 2022 was New Mexico’s second-deadliest year on record, down 9.1% from 2021. Alcohol-related deaths due to chronic illnesses, which made up nearly two-thirds of the total, fell 12.5%, whereas deaths involving acute intoxication, including those due to violent injuries, fell only 3.6%.

As Lujan Grisham urges state legislators to pass a raft of gun safety measures, scientists said the overlap between alcohol and violence is considerable and underappreciated. Because drinking inhibits reasoning and fosters impulsivity, it is commonly implicated in shootings. An investigation by New Mexico in Depth showed that over the last decade, 42% of the state’s homicide victims were drinking immediately prior to death as were 32% of people who died by suicide.

“There is no way to comprehensively reduce firearm death and injury without tackling the role of alcohol,” wrote Josh Horwitz, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, in an email. To prevent gun violence, he said New Mexico could limit the hours and days when alcohol can be served, raise alcohol taxes, and temporarily prohibit gun possession by people convicted multiple times for driving under the influence.

If anything, New Mexico has done the opposite. In 2022, Lujan Grisham signed a bill expanding days and hours of sale for alcohol, over the objections of the state’s alcohol epidemiologist in her own health department

As for alcohol taxes, Sedillo Lopez and other Democratic legislators filed a bill to raise rates 25¢ a drink

The governor has not publicly indicated whether she opposes or supports their proposal.

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