Heavy drinking blurs Colo. health

18 percent say they exceed moderation; 21 percent in La Plata

High alcohol consumption is dragging down health in many Colorado counties, from Denver to the mountains, according to the annual County Health Rankings produced by the nation’s largest public-health foundation.

The highest incidence of excessive drinking came in Routt and Pitkin counties, home to the Steamboat Springs and Aspen ski resort communities. Some 31 percent of adults in Routt County and 30 percent in Pitkin said they drank at one of two levels defined as unhealthy by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

La Plata County reported 21 percent at unhealthy drinking levels, higher than the state average of 18 percent. Montezuma (17 percent), Dolores (17 percent) and Archuleta (15 percent) all came in below the state average.

Heavy drinking is averaging more than one drink a day for women and two for men. Binge drinking is defined as four beverages in two hours for women – or five for men.

As previously reported in The Durango Herald (April 15), for overall health, La Plata County came in at No. 6 among 59 Colorado counties. Five of the state’s 64 counties were not ranked. La Plata boasted low numbers for teen births, children in poverty and preventable stays in the hospital.

Pitkin and Douglas counties ranked No. 1 and No. 2 on overall health, based on numerous factors, from residents’ own reporting of their health, to rates of smoking, obesity, and coverage by insurance and primary-care doctors. A prime source of information is a national phone survey by the CDC that reaches 500,000 people a year. Details of this year’s Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report can be found at www.countyhealthrankings.org.

High alcohol use is the third-leading lifestyle-related cause of death in the United States, causing 80,000 deaths a year, the report said. Excessive drinkers are more likely to drive drunk. Heavy alcohol use also increases the risk of heart attacks, injuries, violence, fetal alcohol syndrome and sexually transmitted diseases, the report said.

These levels were set by the CDC and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, because they have “a deleterious impact on health,” said Amanda Jovaag, an epidemiologist with County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, which compiles the data.

Teaching people to consume alcohol only at healthy levels is tough, Jovaag said. That’s because “research shows a certain amount of drinking may have positive impacts on health, if it’s the right kind of drinking and done at the right rate. But levels above that can be very harmful to health,” she said.

Overall, about 18 percent of Coloradans said they exceed these standards, nearly triple what the authors said would be a healthier rate of 7 percent of adults.

The report didn’t factor in teen binge drinking – which is nearly as common, according to another recent study, the Colorado Health Report card. That study found the state average for adults to be significantly higher at 23 percent for binge drinking alone.

Excessive drinking tends to be higher both among Latinos and people with more money and education.

Pitkin County otherwise ranked No. 1 in the state for overall health, in part because residents said they felt poorly less often than other Coloradans. Pitkin also had fewer preventable stays in the hospital. In addition, only 8 percent of adults smoke, compared with 28 percent in Las Animas County in southeastern Colorado. And only 14 percent in Pitkin County are obese, compared with 27 percent in Kit Carson County on the Nebraska border.

Douglas County, south of Denver, ranked No. 2 in health with similar reasons.

Sparsely populated Yuma County in northeastern Colorado ranked No. 7, in part because of the very low 6 percent of adults who drink heavily and a small number of fast food restaurants. People there reported having few days when they felt ill, but the county ranked near the bottom for having insurance and enough primary-care doctors.

Weld County, home to Greeley, ranked No. 21 with high obesity, poor reported health, a high number of preventable stays in the hospital, and a serious shortage of dentists and primary-care physicians.

Mesa County on the Western Slope ranked No. 33 with poor reported health but low numbers of preventable stays in the hospital, good rates of screening for diabetes and more primary-care physicians than typical in the state.

In the southern past of the state, El Paso County came in at No. 34 with high rates of premature death and babies being born at an unhealthy low weight. It has significantly fewer primary-care physicians per resident as well.

Denver County ranked No. 40, with high rates of premature deaths, child poverty, heavy drinking and people without social or emotional support. But it has plenty of primary-care physicians.

Colorado Public News, a nonprofit news organization, reports on issues of statewide interest. It partners with Colorado Public Television 12, Denver’s independent PBS station.