Addiction treatment veteran Jim Aiello discusses our reluctance to examine the alcohol-violence connection and proposes one solution

I don’t often write letters to the editor, but a number of years ago an article appeared in the paper that moved me to respond. The headline read “Racial slur incites murder on the Southside.” Since I was working on Pittsburgh’s Southside at the time, I was concerned to read about violence in the neighborhood.

As I read the article, several facts emerged that made me question the headline.  In the first place, it hadn’t been a racial slur in the ordinary sense of the word. It turns out that someone did make an ethnic slur, calling another person “a dumb Polack.” It also happened that the whole event took place at a party. The person on the receiving end of the slur got very angry, pulled out a knife and killed the name-caller. The last paragraph of the article referenced the fact that both people had been drinking heavily.

This prompted me to headline my letter to the paper: “Alcohol: the real killer on the Southside.”

Obviously, the person wielding the knife was the “real killer,” but it struck me that alcohol had a prominent role in this tragic incident and mention of it should not have been buried in the article’s last paragraph. It might be argued that carrying a knife to a party is inviting trouble, but since alcohol greatly impairs both judgment and self-control, it’s not surprising that the knife plus the booze proved fatal.

“…the people featured in beer commercials are so healthy-and happy-looking that any visitor from another planet would think that drinking lots of this product must be great for your health…”

America’s long-standing love affair with alcohol reaches back to our country’s founding and these days, about 67% of the population drinks.

Although we like to drink, we don’t like to talk about the consequences of our use. True, the last few decades have seen more public conversation about the impacts of alcohol on society—especially with regards to drunk driving—but there is still a tremendous amount of community denial around the connection between violence and America’s favorite drug.

The alcohol industry spends lots of money—and by lots, I mean over a billion dollars a year—on happy, upbeat alcohol ads.  Most of that money is spent by the beer industry on clever commercials targeted at young drinkers. In fact, the people featured in beer commercials are so healthy- and happy-looking that any visitor from another planet would think that drinking lots of this product must be great for your health, though the contrary is often true.

While most of the drinking population consumes “safe” amounts of alcohol, drinking contributes to both personal and national mayhem in dramatic ways. Alcohol is a factor in:

  • 60-70% of homicides
  • 40% of suicides
  • 40-50% of fatal motor vehicle accidents
  • 60% of fatal burn injuries
  • 60% of drownings
  • 40% of fatal falls

Source: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

What these statistics don’t mention is the role of alcohol in assaults (simple and aggravated assaults as well as sexual assaults), robberies, and incidents of domestic violence, including child abuse. In fact, alcohol is a factor in 40% of all violent crimes today and has a major impact on the criminal justice system.  This brief video from The National Partnership on Alcohol Misuse and Crime tells the story of alcohol’s impact on the criminal justice system, including but certainly not limited to DUI offenses.

What can be done to reduce the negative impact of alcohol use in America today? Some policy initiatives like increasing the tax on alcoholic beverages and restricting access by reducing the number of alcohol outlets have been shown to have a modest positive effect on the reduction of certain alcohol-related crimes.

But given that alcohol is so widely used and abused, the widespread and routine adoption of Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) in healthcare settings, community agencies, college counseling centers and even faith-based organizations can help people make the decision to reduce the amount they are drinking to healthier levels. While SBIRT has not been studied as a crime reduction tool, it’s reasonable to assume that if people drink less and avoid intoxication, the impulsive type of alcohol-generated violence that occurs with such disastrous effects can be reduced.

Society needs to overcome its reticence to talk about the negative effects of alcohol misuse. Let’s do more than pay lip service to “responsible drinking.” SBIRT is a way to get people to think seriously about how they drink and whether their drinking puts them and others at risk for negative consequences that nobody wants.      

Recommended Resources

National Partnership on Alcohol Misuse and Crime

SBIRT on ireta.org

Alcohol, Violence and Aggression from NIAAA

WHO Policy Briefing: Interpersonal violence and alcohol

The Journal of the American Medical Association: Effects of a Brief Intervention for Reducing Violence and Alcohol Misuse Among Adolescents

Jim Aiello smJim Aiello has been on the staff of IRETA since 2008. For the previous 12 years, he served as Executive Vice President of Treatment Programs for Gateway Rehabilitation Center, one of the oldest and largest providers of drug and alcohol rehabilitation services in western Pennsylvania. He was with Gateway for over 25 years in various supervisory capacities. Mr. Aiello has been an instructor in Penn State’s Chemical Dependency Counselor Training Program, has a Masters degree in Theology from St. John’s University in New York City, and a Masters degree in Counseling from the University of Georgia. He conducts trainings and webinars for IRETA, including “Ethics in Addiction” and “How Substance Use Disorders Affect Physical Health.”