Heavy Drinking Costs the U.S. $223.5 Billion Annually: CDC

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Excessive alcohol consumption cost the U.S. $223.5 billion in 2006 alone, and nearly half of that burden was borne by the government, according to a new study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Almost three quarters of the costs of heavy drinking were due to lost productivity, while 11% resulted from health care expenses, 9% from criminal justice costs and 8% from other effects like those related to fetal alcohol syndrome and associated disorders.

“That amounts to almost $750 for every person in the country and about $1.90 per drink,” said CDC director Thomas Frieden during a teleconference on Monday announcing the publication of the study. “Of that $1.90 per drink, about 80 cents per drink is borne by federal, state and local governments.”

Although drug overdoses get more attention, alcohol use is actually responsible for more than twice as many deaths as drug use — making it the third leading preventable cause of death, according to the CDC.

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Researchers noted that 79,000 Americans die annually from alcohol related causes, with nearly two-thirds of these deaths attributable to acute causes like car accidents and homicides and the rest caused by diseases like cirrhosis linked to chronic heavy drinking.

The CDC defined “excessive drinking” as exceeding U.S. guidelines for moderate drinking. Moderate drinking means having one or fewer drinks per day for women, and two or fewer for men. Behaviors that fall under excessive drinking include underage drinking, drinking during pregnancy, heavy drinking and binge drinking — which was defined as having more than four drinks on a single occasion for women, and more than five for men.

Given American drinking patterns, this means that most of us have probably engaged in excessive drinking, typically on multiple occasions. Forty-four percent of college students, for example, report having been drunk at least once in the last month.

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Binge drinking led to the greatest financial damage, the CDC found, particularly in terms of lost lives and productivity. “Binge drinking means binge spending,” Frieden said.

About $10 billion in costs were associated with treatment for alcoholism and alcohol abuse, accounting for 43% of the total health care costs resulting from excessive drinking. Twelve percent of the overall cost was linked to underage drinking, most of this connected to losses due to early deaths.

Because the study focused only on heavy drinking — which has no health benefits — it did not include potential reductions in health costs linked to moderate drinking. Moderate drinking has been connected in multiple studies to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, the number one killer in the U.S.

The study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

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