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How Scared Should I Be of Drinking Myself to Death on New Year's Eve?

Drinking until you die is on the rise in the US, and New Year's Eve is a big night for drinking.
Photo via Flickr user - EMR -

In the column "How Scared Should I Be?" VICE staff writer and generalized anxiety disorder sufferer Mike Pearl seeks to quantify the scariness of the world he lives in. We hope it helps you to more wisely allocate that most precious of natural resources: your fear.

As I've previously mentioned, I've accidentally reduced my alcohol consumption to a point you might refer to as "moderation." I do, however, like to get kinda shitfaced on New Year's Eve, which is, generally, the wildest night of my year.

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And not to sound like the last 30 seconds of one of those safety videos they show before prom, but I won't be driving any cars while drunk. For added safety, I'll be careful around the roads in general, because cars sometimes eat drunk pedestrians. But any night spent binging on alcohol comes with a risk factor that no brilliant transportation plan can circumvent—the alcohol.

"On New Year's it's probably a time when everybody feels like they can let go a little bit," Dr. George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse (NIAA) and Alcoholism told me. But while that sounds like it's not a big deal, he pointed out that people like me, a 31-year-old who is still planning to get wasted, are part of a trend toward greater overall national drunkenness. "There's an increase in intensity of drinking, particularly in young people, but also extending into middle age," Koob said.

On college campuses, the stated intention of "drinking to blackout," is a relatively new phenomenon, but the NIAA has taken notice. "What we pick up in some of the surveys is people are doing more binge drinking of the extreme kind—I would call it 'extreme binge drinking'—where you're doing 10 to 15 drinks in an evening."

That amount of booze over a long evening would send most people past "shitfaced" and into "unconscious." If, on the other hand, you put away all 15 of those drinks over the course of two hours or less, it could kill you.

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But does New Year's put me at risk for that kind of frat house-level drinking?

Let's say like many sophisticated, career-minded adults, I began my night with a little Dom Pérignon (more likely it'll be André, but hey, they're both booze). Champagne has a much higher alcohol percentage than most beer, and carbonated drinks get you drunk faster than flat ones. "The bubbles interact with the lining of your stomach and intestine, and help facilitate some of the absorption," Koob told me, adding, "Someone who comes in and drinks three glasses of champagne on an empty stomach to load up is probably already asking for trouble."

In other words the champagne you drink early in the evening might set you on the path toward sloshed, without you fully realizing it.

The idea with alcohol is that it's a drug that makes stuff more fun. "When you do so much of a drug, like alcohol, that releases all of those good things, they also trigger your stress axis," Koob told me in an interview for a different article last year. When you start to feel shitty—typically when your blood alcohol percentage gets past .08, you might unwisely try to medicate that feeling of shittiness with more alcohol. That's the cycle that can potentially result in unexpectedly intense drinking.

These kinds of nights have become more common recently, according to the NIH's data-gathering efforts. Koob quoted to me from some in-house statistics he had at hand. "Alcohol poisoning deaths in general increased sevenfold from 1999 to 2013," he said. The rate increased from "337 in 1999 to 2,303 in 2013. A big increase in the last 15 years."

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According to the aptly-named Bob Brewer, MD, who leads the Alcohol Program at the Centers for Disease Control, that upward trend exists both on and off of college campuses. "Binge drinking is a major public health problem across the lifespan," he told me in an email interview. "There were an average of 2,200 alcohol poisoning deaths [per year]—or about six deaths per day—in the US from 2010 to 2012," he pointed out. And far from being related to the rise of butt chugging as a hazing method, he told me that "about three in four of these deaths involved adults aged 35-64."

Right when I was feeling glad I was younger than the group he quoted, he horrified me with another statistic: "1 in 10 total deaths among working-age adults aged 20-64 years are due to excessive alcohol consumption, including deaths due to alcohol poisoning," he told me, adding that "about 70 percent of the approximately 1.5 billion self-reported binge drinking episodes among adults aged 18 and older in the US are reported by adults aged 26 or older."

As for the NIH's number of deaths from binge drinking, Koob had more bad news: "We think they're probably an underestimation because alcohol is often overlooked as a cause of death." Alcohol, he explained, doesn't necessarily get blamed when someone dies by mixing it with other drugs like opiates and benzodiazepines. Since alcohol poisoning deaths typically take the form of respiratory arrest—the same thing as prescription opiates. "About 15 percent of prescription opioid deaths also involve alcohol," he said.

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"I hate to be a real downer," Koob said before transitioning to another terrifying topic: liver damage. Young people in the UK are coming down with cirrhosis in record numbers recently, and given our increased drinking, Koob suspects the US might not be far behind. But can one New Year's Eve binge do irreversible damage to your liver? Maybe, he told me.

A major binge could conceivably wreak permanent havoc on your liver, "if an individual already has a compromised liver, or they have some other disease that can compromise their liver like hepatitis C, or even HIV, or they were just born that way," according to Koob.

Still, Koob knows damn well I'm going to be drinking on New Year's Eve, and he didn't try to talk me out of it. "Having three to four drinks on New Year's Eve is not a big deal if you pace it and have some food, and drink a good bit of water in between. You can enjoy it, and have a good time." He even went as far as to concede that "you're not gonna fry your brain with one binge of five drinks."

I didn't tell him this, but I might have six drinks on New Year's. In all honesty though, that's probably when I'll call it a night.

Final Verdict: How Scared Should I Be of Drinking Myself to Death on New Year's Eve?

3/5: Sweating it

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter

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