Study: 12 percent of Indian deaths due to alcohol

By Mary Clare Jalonick
Washington, D.C. (AP) 9-08

Almost 12 percent of the deaths among American Indians and Alaska Natives are alcohol-related – more than three times the percentage in the general population, a new federal report says.

The report released Aug. 28 by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found 11.7 percent of deaths among American Indians and Alaska Natives between 2001 and 2005 were alcohol-related, compared with 3.3 percent for the U.S. as a whole.

Dwayne Jarman, a CDC epidemiologist who works for the Indian Health Service and is one of the study’s authors, said it is the first national survey that measures American Indian deaths due to alcohol. It should be a “call to action” for federal, state, local and tribal governments, he said.

The researchers obtained their statistics by analyzing death certificates over the four-year period.

The two leading causes of alcohol-related deaths among Indians were traffic accidents and alcoholic liver disease, each of which cause more than a quarter of the 1,514 alcohol-related deaths over the four-year period.

Also listed are homicide (6.6 percent of alcohol-related deaths), suicide (5.2 percent) and injuries in falls (2.2 percent).

There may be many more alcohol-related deaths than the study shows, in part because the CDC analysis did not count deaths related to some diseases for which alcohol is believed to be an important risk factor, such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and colon cancer.

The greatest number of tribal alcohol-related deaths – about a third of the total – occurred in the Northern Plains, where reservations are remote and often destitute, the study said. The lowest number of deaths were in Alaska.

Jarman said the study did not look at why there may be more deaths in the Plains but said it is consistent with previous studies.

“It may be a function of social perceptions of alcohol in that particular region,” he said. The report did not break down the numbers by tribe.

The study said more than 68 percent of the Indians whose deaths were attributed to alcohol were men, and 66 percent were people younger than 50 years old. Seven percent were less than 20 years old.

The study recommends “culturally appropriate clinical interventions” to reducing excessive drinking and better integration between tribal health care centers and tribal courts, which often deal with alcohol-related crimes.

Donovan Antelope, a spokesman for the Northern Arapaho Tribe, said alcoholism has been a problem for more than a century with many Indian populations.

“It has had a very negative impact on our day-to day life,” he said, adding that the tribe has started promoting alcohol-free events.

Alcohol is officially barred on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southeast South Dakota, but it’s home to one of the poorest, most alcohol-ravaged populations in the country. The 5,000-square mile reservation is home to about 15,000 Oglala Sioux.

Much of the alcohol sold to tribe members comes from stores in Whiteclay, a northwest Nebraska village situated just yards from the reservation.

The uneasy tie between the village and the reservation is complicated by jurisdictional issues. Problems in the area – where people are often passed out drunk on the sidewalks or begging for beer money – have been the subject of finger-pointing for decades.

In the past, American Indian activists have set up illegal blockades outside Whiteclay to confiscate alcohol headed to the reservation.

In general, American Indians suffer much higher death rates of most leading causes than the rest of the country. Besides alcoholism, drug use, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and suicide also are high.

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