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Alcohol Abuse Costs DoD Dearly

By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 6, 2000 -- Twenty-one percent of service members admit to drinking heavily -- a statistic the military hasn’t managed to lower in 20 years -- but service officials are determined to change that.

“If you look at heavy use of alcohol, drinking a lot in a short span of time, we tend to have a higher prevalence than the civilian community,” said Lt. Col. Wayne Talcott, an Air Force psychologist. Young military people between 18 and 25 also tend to do more heavy drinking than their civilian peers, he noted.

Speaking only in terms of medical care and lost time at work, alcohol abuse costs DoD more than $600 million each year, said Navy Capt. Robert Murphy, a medical corps officer. DoD spends another $132 million a year to care for babies with fetal alcohol syndrome -- sometimes-serious health problems related to their mothers’ heavy drinking.

Talcott and Murphy co-chair the relatively new DoD Alcohol Abuse and Tobacco Use Reduction Committee. Their goal is to reduce the prevalence of heavy drinking within the military by 5 percent a year by changing DoD officials’ focus on alcohol abuse from treatment to prevention.

“We have very good treatment programs, but they’re very expensive and don’t reach a lot of people,” Murphy said. “We’re focusing on prevention. We’re certainly not opposed to alcohol use, but we are trying to reduce the prevalence of alcohol abuse.”

“We’re trying to prevent people from having to see a specialist,” Talcott said. “If you want to decrease prevalence, you need to have policies and programs in place across the spectrum to discourage heavy drinking.”

As some colleges do with their students, Talcott said, the committee wants to help service members understand the liabilities associated with heavy drinking. “We want to help them understand if you drink this much and you drive you’re going to be under the influence, or at this level you’re impaired,” he said.

The committee also aims to better track alcohol-related adverse events, such as incidences of driving under the influence, suicides, crimes and domestic violence, Murphy said. He explained there’s no centralized DoD tracking system, though the services collect data that can be collated into DoD-wide figures.

Recent civilian studies have turned up some frightening statistics, Murphy said. Thirty-one percent of all occupational injuries are alcohol-related, as are 23 percent of suicides and 32 percent of homicides.

Talcott said senior officials have likened DoD's new approach to preventive maintenance. “You maintain a jet engine so it doesn’t fall out of the sky,” he said. “We need to begin to look at where there are risks to the human weapon system and how we can build a system that protects our people.”

This is very different from previous approaches, he said. “You typically have program offices that largely are designed to treat people with alcohol problems,” Talcott explained. “Rather than waiting for people to develop
severe problems, we want to build into the system ways to get the right messages to help our young people make better decisions about their drinking behavior.

“It’s not the use, it’s alcohol abuse that gets people into trouble,” he said.

Information Courtesy of American Forces Information Service

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