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Rise in Deaths Spurs Effort to Raise Alcohol Taxes

The number of deaths from drinking also rose during the pandemic, rising 25 percent in 2020 from the previous year. But the dead – they have surpassed 140,000 nationwide — have been on the rise in every state for decades. Few places have seen a bigger increase than Oregon, where the number of alcohol-caused deaths increased 2.5-fold between 1999 and 2020, after adjusting for the state’s changing age distribution.

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

Several studies in recent years have suggested that even moderate drinking poses a health risk, including to the heart. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that men consume no more than two drinks per day and women no more than one.

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

To address substance abuse, Oregon has placed an emphasis on education and treatment to address substance use. A 2020 ballot that decriminalized possession of small amounts of all drugs also sent hundreds of millions of tax dollars from marijuana to recovery services, including alcohol. This summer, Oregon sponsored a campaign to “Rethink the drink.”

dr. Tim Naimi, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria, labeled educational campaigns a “fig leaf” and said the treatment, while helpful, was akin to parking an ambulance under a cliff rather than the abyss to prevent people from falling. Measures to prevent excessive drinking are cheaper and more effective, he said. “If you want to talk about prevention, you have to talk about policy.”