Proposed Office of Alcohol Prevention steps up ambition, but is short on vision

The New Mexico Department of Health has asked the legislature for $5 million to build an Office of Alcohol Prevention, which would expand the staff focused on reducing excess drinking from a single epidemiologist to a team of 13. If created, the office would represent a significant increase in resources and personnel focused on the state’s epidemic of alcohol-related deaths, by an agency long cowed into inaction against the challenge. But some experts who reviewed an internal description of the proposed office, which New Mexico In Depth obtained by public records request, said the plan was not bold enough to meet the crisis. Tim Naimi, who directs the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria, said that to reverse the state’s climbing death rate would require sustained strategies that influence drinking by everyone in the state, not just those who have already developed serious problems with alcohol. But he said the activities highlighted in the plan were redundant with existing practices and lacked focus and resolve.

Deaths due to drinking rose sharply in 2021

More than 2,200 New Mexicans died of alcohol-related causes in 2021, according to new estimates from the Department of Health, capping a decade in which such fatalities nearly doubled and setting a new high-water mark in a state already beset by the worst drinking crisis in the nation. The updated data arrive as lawmakers draft legislation to reduce alcohol’s harms for the upcoming session. 

Laura Tomedi, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico College of Population Health, drew on the data at a late-November hearing of the interim Legislative Health and Human Services Committee. Tomedi, who from 2013 to 2018 led the health department’s substance abuse epidemiology section and served as its alcohol epidemiologist, told lawmakers the state’s death rate had been “going up and up and up” for years. But she described the latest trends — a 17% uptick in 2020 and another 13% jump in 2021 — as a “concerning, sharp increase.”

This spike in deaths coincided with the pandemic, she said, when “​early indications are showing that alcohol use increased quite a bit.”

The mortality data, which are the most comprehensive estimates of alcohol’s full impact on New Mexicans’ health, account for all causes of death brought on by drinking including injuries in motor-vehicle crashes and violence in which the victim was intoxicated, and illnesses such as liver disease and cancer. Illness deaths due to chronic drinking made up a growing share of alcohol-attributable deaths, accounting for 62% in 2021, compared to 38% resulting from acute intoxication such as injuries and poisonings.

Legislators consider key questions on alcohol tax reforms

Lawmakers concerned about New Mexico’s worst-in-the-nation rate of alcohol-related deaths are focused on revising how the state taxes alcohol. Last month, the Legislative Health & Human Services Committee chose an alcohol tax increase as one of its top priorities for 2023 and next week, another committee will hear tax experts present on the topic. Several top lawmakers agree the state’s alcohol taxes should be higher but they don’t know how much to increase them, whether to change how the taxes are levied, and what to do with the revenues raised. “Everyone needs to understand the landscape before we have a serious conversation about how it should be changed,” said Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, who chairs the Revenue Stabilization and Tax Policy Committee that meets next Thursday and Friday. Like many states, New Mexico taxes alcohol wholesalers a fixed amount per volume of beverage they sell to retailers, who raise prices on consumers to cover the upcharge.

Lawmakers say alcohol on 2023 session agenda

Powerful state lawmakers are signaling their desire to address New Mexico’s worst-in-the-nation rate of alcohol-related deaths in the upcoming session, including by changing how alcohol is taxed. Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, chair of the influential Senate Finance Committee, said he supports raising statewide alcohol taxes, among the most effective measures for curbing excessive drinking. Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, agreed the state’s rates “are probably not at the level they need to be,” and raising them “should be part of the solution” to the state’s alcohol crisis. Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chair of the House committee that crafts the state budget, acknowledged “we do not have the balance right” between businesses that profit from selling alcohol and people harmed by consuming it and said in the coming session she expected “legislation to come through that is going to cost money.”

In August, lawmakers on health, criminal justice, and economic committees voiced concern about New Mexico’s alcohol problems. Many attributed the flurry of interest to a New Mexico In Depth investigative series, which showed the state’s alcohol-related death rate has risen continuously for decades and is far above any other state’s. “I really didn’t realize how bad we were on alcohol deaths until I read all of those articles,” said Stewart.

Blind Drunk

Alcohol is killing New Mexicans at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country — yet the state has largely neglected the growing crisis.

In this multipart series, New Mexico In Depth investigates the state’s blind spots and shines a light on solutions.