WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Alcohol-related causes such as liver disease and car crashes account for nearly 12 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native deaths, 3-1/2 times the figure for the overall population, officials said on Thursday.
Excessive drinking has long been a problem in these often-impoverished populations, as reflected in what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the first national report tracking such alcohol-related deaths.
“Hopefully this serves as a constructive wake-up call not only for tribal communities but for the national government and state governments as well,” Dr. Tim Naimi of the CDC and the U.S. government’s Indian Health Service, one of the researchers involved in the report, said in a telephone interview.
CDC researchers analyzed death certificate data from 2001 to 2005. In that period, an average of 1,514 American Indians and Alaska Natives died due to alcohol-related causes a year.
Alcohol-related deaths accounted for 11.7 percent of the deaths of American Indians and Alaska Natives, compared to 3.3 percent in the U.S. general population, the CDC said.
Sixty-eight percent of these deaths were among men.
The report considered a range of alcohol-related deaths led by vehicle crashes and liver disease but also including murder, suicides, falls and various ailments.
Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians, an advocacy group, said alcoholism in these populations is one of the many legacies of the destruction of Indian culture and communities.
Holden called on the federal government to provide more funding for Indian health programs overall and for programs aimed at countering alcohol abuse.
“Why is it that the average federal prisoner gets twice as much in health care dollars than Native American people do?” Holden asked in a telephone interview.
Naimi said alcohol abuse is the third-leading preventable cause of death among all Americans, behind smoking and the combination of over-eating and physical inactivity. “This is not a problem limited to one population,” Naimi said.
“The good news is that there are lots of effective interventions to reduce alcohol misuse. ... Things like raising alcohol taxes, reducing hours of sale and enforcing widely ignored laws preventing sale of alcohol to intoxicated persons,” Naimi said.
It is also important to ensure there are adequate alcohol counseling and treatment services for Indians, Naimi added.
Editing by Julie Steenhuysen and Todd Eastham