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Heavy drinking hurts Colorado's health stats

By: Ann Imse Colorado Public News
April 29, 2013

High alcohol consumption is dragging down health in many Colorado counties, according to the annual County Health Rankings produced by the nation's largest public health foundation.

The report shows that Pitkin and Douglas counties ranked No. 1 and No. 2 on overall health, based on numerous factors, from residents' reporting of their health, to rates of smoking, obesity and coverage by insurance and primary care doctors. A prime source of information is a national phone survey by the CDC that reaches 500,000 people a year. Details of this year's Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report can be found at

High alcohol use is the third leading lifestyle-related cause of death in the United States, causing 80,000 deaths a year, the report said. Excessive drinkers are more likely to drive drunk. Heavy alcohol use also increases the risk of heart attacks, injuries, violence, fetal alcohol syndrome and sexually transmitted diseases, the report said.

About 15 percent of El Paso County residents engage in heavy or binge drinking, according to the report. That's down about 1 percent from the 2012 report and below the state rate of 18 percent.

The highest incidence of excessive drinking came in Routt and Pitkin counties, home to the Steamboat Springs and Aspen ski resort communities. About 31 percent of adults in Routt County and 30 percent in Pitkin said they drank at one of two levels defined as unhealthy by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heavy drinking is averaging more than one drink a day for women and two for men. Binge drinking is defined as four beverages in two hours for women - or five for men.

These levels were set by the CDC and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, because they have 'a deleterious impact on health, ' said Amanda Jovaag, an epidemiologist with County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, which compiles the data.

Teaching people to consume alcohol only at healthy levels is tough, Jovaag said. That's because 'research shows a certain amount of drinking may have positive impacts on health, if it's the right kind of drinking and done at the right rate. But levels above that can be very harmful to health, ' she said.

Different reasons

Jill Law, public health director of El Paso County Public Health, said mental health is an issue in El Paso County and it can often play a role in people's choices to drink excessively. She said she does not know exactly what factors into the county's ranking. People need to understand moderation when drinking for perceived health benefits, she said. Drinking a glass of wine is very different from finishing the bottle.

'Really, alcohol use is alcohol use, ' Law said. 'It all comes down to whatever is considered a serving and then having too many servings in a day. '

Kathi Matthews, a certified addiction counselor for AspenPointe in Colorado Springs, said there are so many factors influencing alcoholism that it's impossible to say exactly why one county may be reporting significantly higher or lower rates of excessive drinking than any other.

'Alcoholism is a tremendous problem everywhere that I know of, ' she said. '(The rankings) are an interesting thing to look at because I don't know there are different reasons in our county than any other county. '

Care for alcoholism failing

Overall, about 18 percent of Coloradans said they exceed these standards, nearly triple what the authors said would be a healthier rate of 7 percent of adults. Colorado, too, has consistently ranked near last-place for access to care for alcoholism, Matthews said.

The report didn't factor in teen binge drinking - which is nearly as common, according to another recent study, the Colorado Health Report card. That study found the state average for adults to be significantly higher at 23 percent for binge drinking alone.

Excessive drinking tends to be higher both among Latinos and people with more money and education.

Pitkin County otherwise ranked No. 1 in the state for overall health, in part because residents said they felt poorly less often than other Coloradans. Pitkin also had fewer preventable stays in the hospital. In addition, only 8 percent of adults smoke, compared to 28 percent in Las Animas County in southeastern Colorado. And only 14 percent in Pitkin County are obese, compared to 27 percent in Kit Carson County on the Nebraska border.

Douglas County, south of Denver, ranked No. 2 in health with similar reasons.

La Plata County, home to Durango, came in at No. 6, with low numbers for teen births, children in poverty and preventable stays in the hospital.

Sparsely populated Yuma County ranked No. 7, in part due to the very low 6 percent of adults who drink heavily and a small number of fast food restaurants. People reported having few days when they felt ill, but the county ranked near the bottom for having insurance.

Weld County, home to Greeley, ranked No. 21 with high obesity, poor reported health, a high number of preventable stays in the hospital, and a serious shortage of dentists and primary care physicians.

Mesa County on the Western Slope ranked No. 33 with poor reported health but low numbers of preventable stays in the hospital, good rates of screening for diabetes and more primary care physicians than typical in the state.

In the southern part of the state, El Paso County came in at No. 34 with high rates of premature death. The number is calculated based on adding up the years of life a county loses when people die before the age of 75.

The report shows there are more than 6,300 years of potential life lost per 100,000 people in the county. About 9.7 percent of babies are also born at an unhealthily low weight. It has significantly fewer primary care physicians per resident as well.

The percentage of uninsured people is significantly lower in El Paso County than it is in many other parts of the state, though. About 16 percent of the county is uninsured, the state average is 18 percent.

Denver County ranked No. 40, with high rates of premature deaths, child poverty, heavy drinking and people without social or emotional support. But it has plenty of primary care physicians.


Gazette reporter Kassondra Cloos contributed to this report.

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