Lawmakers review NM’s ‘off the charts’ alcohol death rate

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A bottle of 99 Black Cherry liquor sits in the grass along Interstate 25 in Santa Fe County on Wednesday. A panel of lawmakers devoted much of Wednesday to discussing the number of New Mexicans killed or injured by alcohol consumption. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — New Mexico has the worst alcohol-related death rate in the nation.

And it’s not just high: The rate is nearly double the national average, according to federal data shared with lawmakers Wednesday. Second-place status isn’t even close.

Lawmakers confronted the alarming numbers on Wednesday during a day-long hearing to examine alcohol’s role in crime, disease and death in New Mexico.

No one offered easy solutions. But lawmakers have tackled all sorts of ideas, from tax changes to tightening the presumptive level of intoxication in DWI laws, now set at a blood alcohol level of 0.08.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, Democrat of Las Cruces and co-chair of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, went through a list of people in his life killed by drunk drivers, including his college roommate, as he urged lawmakers to recognize the crisis.

“It’s mind-boggling to me that we would be double other states,” he said of the death rate. “We’re not just worse, we’re off the charts.”

Some of the numbers shared on Wednesday came from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adjusted for age and population, the CDC estimated that New Mexico had an average of 53 alcohol-attributed deaths annually per 100,000 population in 2011-2015.

The national rate was 28 deaths. Only one other state, Alaska, has reached even 40 deaths, and its figure was an estimate the CDC has warned may not be reliable.

Figures are based on deaths related to excessive alcohol consumption, including binge drinking and chronic health conditions, car accidents and homicides.

More recent estimates of alcohol-related deaths also show New Mexico leading the nation.

Members of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee heard from epidemiologists and others working for the state Departments of Health and Public Safety as part of Wednesday’s presentation on Capitol Hill. The hearing comes as lawmakers prepare for a 60-day regular session beginning Jan. 17.

They heard a range of disturbing statistics about the link between excessive alcohol consumption and incidents of violence, injuries and chronic illnesses. The links go far beyond drunk driving, according to testimony before lawmakers.

Alcohol plays a significant role in suicide, child abuse, traffic accidents, gunshot wounds and homicide.

Aryan Showers, center, director of the Office of Policy and Accountability at the Department of Health, addresses lawmakers Wednesday about New Mexico’s deep-rooted problems with alcohol. Also at the table are Garry Kelley, left, senior injury epidemiologist for the DOH, and Annaliese Mayette, alcohol epidemiologist at the DOH, both of whom helped answer questions from lawmakers. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Aryan Showers, director of the Department of Health’s Office of Policy and Accountability, said alcohol problems in New Mexico date back decades. It may be a symptom, she said, of other societal ills and difficult to address simply by more strictly regulating alcohol.

“It’s really a generational issue,” Showers said.

The department, she said, intends to strengthen its surveillance and data collection on fetal alcohol syndrome and other alcohol-related problems to give policymakers more information about how to solve the problem.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said it’s eye-opening to see the differences in each state’s liquor laws and culture. He described going to college in Seattle and learning how harder it was to get hard liquor.

“I didn’t realize how much New Mexicans drank until I moved,” Maestas said.

But he noted that lawmakers significantly overhauled liquor laws in 2021 with bipartisan support, banning miniatures and making it easier for more restaurants to sell beer and wine.

Alcohol taxation hasn’t changed in years, he said, and the 2021 law could be the start of more changes in how New Mexico regulates alcoholic beverages.

Maestas said it takes time – but not impossible – to change people’s relationship with alcohol. Drunk driving, for example, is not socially accepted as it was decades ago, he said.

State Police Lt. Kurtis Ward said New Mexico still has a drunk driving problem. But there has been huge progress, he said, and it is now harder to spot drunk drivers on the road than before.

At some point in his career, Ward said, it was not unusual to find a sober person in a car driven by a drunk driver. But ride-booking apps and other cultural shifts have made a difference.

Now he’ll find “there’s a bunch of drunk people in the car,” Ward said, “but the driver is sober.”

Some lawmakers took note on Wednesday of a recent series by New Mexico In Depth, a nonprofit news organization, about the state’s alcohol problems. The “Blind Drunk” series concluded that the state has largely neglected the crisis even as it worsens.

On Wednesday, lawmakers adopted no particular solution. Among the ideas that arose were the expansion of technology in cars to detect the driver’s alcohol consumption; make alcohol less available in convenience stores; review how alcohol is taxed; reduce the presumed intoxication level by 0.08 for blood alcohol content; and improving behavioral health programs.

“It’s an extremely complex issue,” said Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque.

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