In Orange County, 21 percent of adults reported excessive drinking in 2016 — a rate higher than the state level of 17 percent. Excessive drinking contributes to health, criminal justice, social and economic consequences that impact both the drinker and the wider community.
As defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, excessive alcohol use includes binge drinking, heavy drinking and alcohol use by pregnant women or anyone younger than 21 years old.
One of the first studies to gauge costs of drinking at the local level was recently completed by Chapel Hill’s Campus & Community Coalition and graduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. The study analyzed the burden of excessive drinking in Orange County based on 2017 data.
“Based on initial feedback, it’s been eye-opening for a lot of folks,” Elinor Landess, director of the Campus & Community Coalition, said.
The study found excessive drinking cost Orange County $111.8 million in 2017. Notably, the highest proportion of the cost — 82.4 percent — involved productivity losses related to drinking such as absenteeism, decreased efficiency, premature death and incarceration for alcohol-attributable crimes. Decreased productivity due to alcohol consumption directly impacts local businesses that rely on the labor of Orange County residents, according to the study.
Another key insight is that government and other community members shoulder a majority of the cost of excessive drinking, rather than the drinkers themselves as might be expected. Drinkers paid 43.2 percent of the total cost while the government paid 45.6 percent and victims and private insurance companies collectively paid 11.3 percent.
While the identified costs of drinking are substantial, the study states that they are conservative values and likely underestimate the burden of excessive drinking in Orange County. Landess said the breakdown of costs is illuminating in showing the full scope and scale of harm.
The study also revealed excessive drinking to be a leading cause of death in Orange County, surpassed only by deaths from cancer, heart disease and chronic lower respiratory diseases. Deaths from excessive drinking have been trending upward across North Carolina over the past decade.
Additionally, in 2017, there were 1,360 total alcohol-attributable crimes committed in Orange County, including burglary, vandalism, driving under the influence and assault.
Overall, the study shows excessive drinking affects all who live and spend time in Orange County through productivity, crime, injuries and illness, and increased spending on healthcare.
“It’s really hard to even convince people that this is something that needs paying attention to, so we’re hoping to open folks’ eyes, expand the number of people who think this is something we need to be thinking about and putting energy towards,” Landess said.
The need to address excessive drinking in Orange County has only grown in recent months. The study’s findings, which were released in April and based on 2017 data, do not reflect increased alcohol sales and consumption during the pandemic. In Orange County, there was a 31% uptick in liquor sales on average per month during the pandemic.
For years, a number of community organizations have been working to reduce drinking in Orange County, and this study highlights the need for continued drinking prevention and reduction efforts. Orange Partnership has been addressing youth substance misuse in Hillsborough and rural Orange County since 2011. Its youth empowerment program, ADAPT, educates peers and community members about the harms of underage drinking.
Community organizations such as Orange Partnership and the Campus & Community Coalition also provide resources to families about drinking and especially encourage parents and other caregivers to have conversations setting clear expectations about alcohol use with their children. Parents have been identified as one of the most reliable sources of information youth turn to about drinking, but often these important conversations are not held. Additionally, Safe Kids of Orange County works to inform parents and other adults about actions they can take beyond conversation to keep their homes safe, such as securing all alcohol and monitoring gatherings.
Furthermore, a new initiative beginning in August in the southern part of the county is Place of Last Drink. Chapel Hill Police officers will collect information about where a person had their last drink prior to encountering law enforcement for offenses such as DUI and open container. The information will be used to help direct educational interventions.
Landess said the harms resulting from excessive drinking are preventable and can be mitigated.
She said much like tobacco use was drastically cut, the same can be accomplished with alcohol if there is the will in the community and legislature. Landess hopes the study’s findings will make more people aware of the extent of alcohol’s negative impacts and inform change so that alcohol use is not as commonplace.
“This study challenges us to envision an Orange County in which alcohol is not a leading cause of death in our community,” Landess said. “As you take in the data, imagine what it would look like if we did not lose millions of dollars a year in productivity costs because of alcohol.”
Gayane Chambless, director of the Orange Partnership, agreed that reducing excessive drinking in Orange County will be beneficial for the community.
“This study demonstrates that everyone in the community can play a role in reducing the costs incurred from excessive alcohol use, not just those with kids in the home,” Chambless said. “It takes each of us doing our part.”
Rachel Crumpler is a journalism student at UNC Chapel Hill.