Alcohol poisoning deaths are soaring in Massachusetts, and state health officials are pointing to a number of potential causes — from binge drinking to the sales tax exemption given to alcohol sold in stores.
The number of deaths attributed to drinking fatal levels of alcohol jumped from just 18 in 2000 to 228 in 2008, a 12-fold increase that has pushed alcohol into the second spot ahead of cocaine overdoses, according to a report by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
The report found that in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available, alcohol was associated with one in four poisoning deaths, which include drug overdoses, placing it behind fatal overdoses caused by opioids like heroin and OxyContin, which accounted for 69 percent of all poisoning deaths.
The vast majority of the deaths, 88 percent, were ruled accidental.
While health officials are still struggling to get a handle on the cause of the dramatic increase in alcohol-related deaths, they say a series of factors could play a role.
Massachusetts, with its plethora of colleges and universities, also has a binge drinking rate that is higher than the national average, according to Michael Botticelli, director of the state Bureau of Substance Abuse Services.
Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks at a time.
Botticelli also pointed to an increase in the number and variety of alcohol energy drinks, which contain stimulants such as caffeine.
“These beverages have been shown to contribute to an increased probability of alcohol poisonings,” Botticelli said in a statement.
He said another potential cause is the expanded availability and marketing of beverages that contain a higher volume of alcohol per serving.
Massachusetts liquor regulators last month banned the sale of caffeine-packed alcoholic drinks, such as Four Loko, known as “blackout in a can,” and other similar beverages.
The drinks are popular with students looking for a quick and cheap buzz. But officials have warned that the caffeine and other stimulants encourage binge drinking by preventing consumers from realizing how drunk they might be.
Botticelli said the cost of alcohol is yet another factor. He said a number of studies have pointed to the public health benefit of higher-priced alcohol, which reduces underage and binge drinking and curbs alcohol-related mortality.
Massachusetts had exempted alcohol sold in stores from the state sales tax until 2009, when lawmakers lifted the exemption at the same time as they raised the sales tax rate from 5 percent to 6.25 percent.
A repeal effort pushed by the state’s package store owners and beer distributors was approved by voters in November. The tax will be lifted in January. The liquor store owners, especially those located near the border with tax-free New Hampshire, argued the tax put them at an economic disadvantage.
The industry raised nearly $3.7 million for an advertising campaign in support of the repeal effort. Opponents of the question raised just $357,000.
State Sen. Stephen Tolman said making alcohol more expensive could help stem the number of binge drinking deaths in the state. Much of the extra money from the increase in the alcohol sales tax went to substance abuse programs.
“There is a direct correlation between the cost of alcohol and the level of binge drinking in colleges and high schools,” said Tolman, D-Boston. “This is very frustrating and disturbing. It shows how out of touch the alcohol industry is.”
Messages requesting comment from Frank Anzalotti, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, were not immediately returned.
One of the most notorious binge drinking deaths occurred in 1997, when Scott Krueger, then a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, drank himself to death during a fraternity initiation.
MIT later agreed to pay $4.75 million to Krueger’s family and establish a $1.25 million scholarship fund in the student’s memory.
After the student’s death, two dozen Boston-area colleges and universities — including MIT — pledged in 1998 to control underage campus drinking.
Even as deaths from alcohol poisoning were soaring in Massachusetts, deaths from opioid-related overdoses began to show signs of dropping.
From 1996 through 2007, the number of fatal overdoses from drugs like heroin and OxyContin among Massachusetts residents jumped from 178 to 637.
In 2008, the number of deaths fell slightly to 594.
Officials say the drop followed a push by the state to expand treatment and outreach for those addicted to the drugs.
Deaths from opioids, which include drugs such as heroin, oxycodone, morphine, codeine and methadone, still topped the list of all poisoning-deaths in 2008.