All Alaskans can benefit from alcohol policy decisions

Posted: Monday, November 20, 2000

Alcohol is a serious problem in Alaska for which there is no "single solution." There are, however, key interventions that can make a difference in reducing the number of lives lost, injuries sustained, tax dollars spent, children abused and crimes committed. These strategies identified by the Governor's Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse deserve strong consideration by candidates and elected legislators who will be working to find solutions to the alcohol problem in our state during the next legislative session.

Strategies that have worked in other states and are effective in reducing traffic accidents and fatalities include lowering the legal blood alcohol level from 0.10 to 0.08. President Clinton signed a measure into law that will result in lost federal highway dollars if states do not adopt the .08 or lower standard. According to a Boston University Study, the adoption of the 0.08 blood alcohol limit could decrease the number of fatal car crashes by a minimum of 500 per year. A driver with 0.08 blood alcohol content is 11 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than a sober driver, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Drivers with .10 blood alcohol content are even more dangerous.

The economic cost of alcohol abuse and dependency in Alaska is huge. The Advisory Board supports an increased alcohol excise tax to match the cost of negative consequences of alcohol to the state. The alcohol excise tax has remained flat since 1983. It does not come close to matching the actual costs associated with alcohol in the state, in part due to inflation.

Information from a National Institute of Health study indicates that the negative impacts associated with alcohol abuse in Alaska cost more than $500 million per year. Costs even impact non-drinkers, who share that tax burden. Alcohol is involved in 83 percent of child abuse, 42 percent of fatal motor vehicle crashes, 50 percent of hospital emergency department visits, 65 percent of suicide attempts, 56 percent of total assaults, 56 percent of domestic violence, 53 percent of sexual assaults, 45 percent of fatal fires and 34 to 50 percent of homicides.

Additionally, Alaska has the highest incidence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in the nation: four times the national average. The lifetime cost of care for one FAS infant is about $1.4 million.

Research shows that when the price of alcohol is increased, the amount of alcohol consumed by every type of drinker decreases. The decrease in consumption reduces the number of alcohol-related problems -- violent crime, child abuse, sexual assault, suicide, motor vehicle fatalities and drunk driving -- all of which result in immense costs to the state.

If the state realizes increased revenues, more funding would be available to support and expand treatment and prevention programs that are known to be effective in treating alcohol abuse and dependence, further reducing these negative consequences.

The Advisory Board advocates a change to the Title 47.37 statute, Involuntary Commitment of Alcoholics. A small percentage of chronic, late-stage alcoholics are so incapacitated by alcohol that they are not capable of caring for themselves, often require emergency medical care, and/or are jailed and repeatedly place themselves in life-threatening situations. For these individuals the Title 47.37 statute, Involuntary Commitment of Alcoholics, not only saves lives, but offers them an opportunity to become healthy, productive citizens.

The statute needs to be changed to allow physician's assistants and advanced nurse practitioners to sign certificates of necessity where physicians are not available, so that small rural communities can have this option available to them. Training on implementation of this statute needs to be made available to judges, treatment providers, law enforcement personnel, health-care providers and others involved in dealing with this high-risk population. This intervention can be used appropriately to help affected persons and reduce the "revolving door" of use, incapacitation, incarceration and harm.

Alice Johnstone is the chair of the legislative committee of the Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. The office is located at 240 Main St., Suite 101, Juneau, AK 99801.

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