A drive past the numerous saloons and bars that line city streets across the state will tell you that Montanans enjoy their alcohol. Montana has the second-highest ratio of bars to people in the U.S., and a new study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows the state also leads the nation in alcohol abuse.
According to the study, which was carried out between 2006 and 2010 and released in June, Montana ranks third in age-adjusted alcohol-attributable deaths (AAD) per 100,000 citizens, behind only New Mexico and Alaska.
Michael Cummins, the executive director at the Flathead Valley Chemical Dependency Clinic, said the drinking problem in Montana is reflective of a broader issue sweeping the rest of the country.
“Most people who drink don’t have a problem,” but the large number of drinkers combined with a lenient culture make alcohol our most abused drug, Cummins said. In Montana, on average 13.2 percent of all deaths for people between the ages of 20 and 64 can be linked to alcohol. In a state that only reached 1 million inhabitants in 2011, an average of 8,713 people suffer alcohol-related deaths every year.
These numbers are also borne out by crash fatality statistics from the Montana Highway Patrol. From Jan. 1 to June 30, 2014, of the 62 crashes involving fatalities, 21 were related to alcohol. This is a 16 percent increase over the same time period last year, when 18 out of 89 fatal crashes involved alcohol.
Nonetheless, Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry says the county has made significant progress in the last decade. According to Curry, the improvement is due to better detection of drunken driving offenders by law enforcement and a zero tolerance policy.
“It’s no longer socially acceptable to drink and drive… In the past, we might go easy on a first time offender, but now, if you drink and drive, you’re going to jail,” Curry said.
Drinking is not only deadly, but costly. The CDCP study estimates that excessive drinking costs the U.S. $223.5 billion a year. Although the health care costs of treating people with alcohol-induced ailments is enormous, the cost in lost life is perhaps even larger. The study estimates that the potential annual loss of life in years for Montana is 133,084.
As the sheriff says, enforcement is just one part of the puzzle. Montana laws have historically been more lenient when it comes to drunken driving, and although they have been tightened in recent years, they are still relaxed compared to those of other states.
Proprietors caught selling alcohol to a minor are fined a scant $250, and a sales license is revoked only after four such offenses. As Cummins says, “Montana has been a little behind the rest of the country,” in terms of alcohol enforcement. For example, only a decade ago you could still drive in Montana with an open beer in your hand.
Drinking culture is the last and perhaps most important part of the puzzle, experts say. In general, people in colder, more northern states drink more than their southern compatriots. According to a study completed by the Beer Institute, North Dakota drank the most beer per capita in 2012, followed by New Hampshire. Montana was third with a per-capita consumption of 41 gallons, a figure that is even higher when you subtract children and other people who don’t drink. Cummins, meanwhile, cites the isolation, lack of resources, and “live hard, play hard” mentality that make many people in frontier states drink heavily.
Montana also has an underage drinking problem, spurred by a mentality that sees alcohol as a rite of passage, according to Cummins. People who drink before the age of 15 are four to six times more likely to develop alcohol-related diseases than those who wait until 21 to start drinking. In 2009, almost 500 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 20 were admitted for alcohol treatment in the state, and more than 30 percent of Montana high school students reported consuming five or more drinks in a single sitting in the previous 30 days.
“We deal with underage drinkers every day,” Curry said. One of the ways the county is trying to cope with the problem is through the Alcohol Enforcement Taskforce, a multi-agency initiative to reduce underage drinking. Another active group in the county is the STOP coalition, which is also focused on underage drinking and includes organizations ranging from Glacier National Park to Fun Beverage Inc. to the Flathead Suicide Prevention Center. They seek to reduce the availability of alcohol to minors and spread the word about the dangers of underage drinking.
As Cummins explains, “there is not a typical case. Alcohol affects people in different ways,” and people who occasionally abuse alcohol are different from those who are addicted to it. Recognizing this, and setting up a system that makes drinkers accountable for their actions while providing them with resources for rehabilitation, are the keys to making Montana’s deadliest pastime safe again.
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